Dispatches | July 12, 2007

As long as I have been alive, there have been convenient ways of interacting with the people in my life, the relatives and friends, near and far. This has been true for several generations previous to my own, but today more than ever. With e-mail and cell phones and text messages, we can be in touch with everyone we know almost constantly. The good of this is obvious: anyone I know can call me anytime, no matter where I am, and I can get their call. However, there’s also a downside: all this connectivity has led to a mass amount of information, but in my experience my phone and computer have led to a serious lack of actual conversation.

Letter writing is something that I, and most people I know, have never truly been exposed to. Sure, I send an occasional birthday or Christmas card, but these hardly count as letters. On someone’s birthday I may go to Walgreens and buy the card that offends my taste the least, which on a bad day will be a crude joke about farts and on a good day may have a picture of a cute dog. After purchasing the card, I write something such as, Love Alex or Happy Birthday! Love Alex, in my barely legible handwriting. Hardly personal. And not communication.

I wish people still wrote letters (if you do write letters, let me know and send me one). Maybe it’s only because I despise talking on phones. But really, I’m thinking of the future. I worry about the possibility of someone two hundred years from now looking at my correspondences. What will they be able to look at? If they find my e-mails and text messages, will those say anything about me and my times? Will that reader of the future be able to decipher anything about my world from what my messages reveal about my personal life?

Someone looking back––assuming they could somehow retrieve the data I have scattered in the airwaves and on the internet––would likely not find much of anything. They might come across something like this:

Me: What’s up?

Close Friend: Nothing, you?

Me: Nothing. What are you doing tonight?

CF: Nothing.

Me: Wanna do something?

CF: Sure, what?

Me: I don’t know.

This conversation would likely go on without reaching any resolution. Or someone might find one of my ranting letters sent to congressmen about taxes or free speech or smoking bans or marijuana. Unfortunately, those are all one-way conversations.

Maybe this lack of content says something about our society. We now hold convenience higher than what we are saying, and how we say it. I have come to this conclusion mostly through transcribing the letters of Samuel Richardson during the period of time when Pamela and Clarissa were published. Observing how people wrote to each other and the ways in which they viewed their society is enlightening in a way that I don’t believe reading imaginative literature alone can be. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that many of the interactions people have today will live on. Most of them will be lost in the virtual world. What survives will be books and newspapers, the solid things. These writings that survive will inform and be interesting to all sorts of people, I’m sure, but what we will miss are the conversations and intimate interactions between real people.

We should all start writing letters, for ourselves and for our future as history. If we did, those distant friends could seem close as that ink and paper in your hand. I like to believe that our personal histories are more than can be displayed through text messages. I like to believe, but if we get hooked on the ease of communication that is almost immediate, I’m not sure we will come across as anything more. I hope that the obsession with convenience can succumb to a love of substance.