Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Dickens and eMail?
I had a double-take when I first read the quote. I misread it at first, substituting “electronic” in my head for the “electric” written on my computer screen. That made no sense, as our modern 2020 perception of electronic communication includes Instagram, Twitter, posts, and talk-to-text. If left with no other option, sometimes we use a good old phone call.
But Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone after Charles Dickens had died. So clearly he wasn’t talking about emails and PowerPoint presentations, how could he have known about those?
Electric not Electronic
Then I realized that the word Dickens used in the quote was “electric.” Maybe he thought about the quality of a particular mode of communication. His use of “electric” meant exciting, animated, or dynamic? That seemed interesting to me, as dynamic speaking is my passion. But that didn’t help me understand, because now the quote contradicted things that I hold dear. Time to research a little deeper to find out what Dickens meant.
Here is the full Dicken’s quote, in context, with my emphasis in bold (hat-tip to Quote Investigator):
O! what a thing it is, in a time of danger, and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face! I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph. I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true. Never try it for that. It will break down like a straw.Charles Dickens, The Wreck of the Golden Mary 1856
The nefarious internet had altered his quote, removing the reference to the electric telegraph. Unknown editors changed the gender from man to person, and subtly changed one other item (more on that below). I don’t know about you, but I like his original quote best!
But Still Relevant Today
This passage is especially prescient in the time we face today. We are in a time of danger, and in the presence of death. And instead of our present peril bringing us together face-to-face as an encouragement to each other, our authorities tell us to remain apart and distant. These are the orders we have been given! As we face the Coronavirus Pandemic, one thing that we certainly need is to be brave and true.
Communication seems to be going through a revolution as we all recoil and react to our changing (and changed) world. We rely on the electric communication machinery of Zoom, Outlook, Teams, and WebEx to try to maintain some element of normalcy and control. See the picture for the first PHT video meeting using Microsoft Teams! The seemingly impossible imagination of the internet and technology have made fantastic things possible. For that, I am truly thankful, just as Dickens was thankful for the remarkable telegraph of his day.
And What About Tomorrow?
But how I long for the time when we can be together again, in person, at our places of business, houses of worship, and schools. I look forward to the encouragement of community in-person, even as we all make the best of our remote and electronic means of community and electric communication.
One More Thing
Now to the last alteration of the quote, and I don’t have a definitive answer here, but rather something to ponder. Is there a difference between having one’s “soul in it” while encouraging another (Dickens) and encouraging another “with their soul” (altered Dickens)?
I suspect that Dickens was thinking about the physical presence of a human face in delivering the message, fully invested with their passion and spirit, resulting in effective communication. For Dickens, it is the face that is doing the encouragement. However, the altered quote pulls the emphasis off of the physical face and on to the communicative power of the soul.
What do you think about it? Send me some electric, electronic communication! And, be brave and true. We will get through this time, together.