If you’re over the age of 30, you surely remember the thrill that once accompanied receiving personally addressed correspondence—once known as letters. It might have been a letter from a friend that had moved away, a favorite aunt sending a check for your birthday, with a handwritten note, or some other form of entreaty that arrived via parcel post.
The advent of email was trumpeted with much fanfare, and the usual ballyhoo that attends each subsequent technological advance. Email was supposed to usher in a new dawn of communication, making it easier and simpler to communicate regularly—yet, another “democratization” in interpersonal relations and correspondence, as if letter writing was the communications equivalent of living behind the Iron Curtain. With this attendant ease of communication has also come an ease by which members of society now feel compelled to unload what’s on their chests, often without much thought and reflection. You can witness this regularly when you read online news articles that allow comments, or blog posts at blogs that have a good deal more traffic than mine. At least letters allowed some measure of time to cool off, reflect, rethink, and possibly tear up that angry note or letter before mailing it. Email allows us to hit “send” as soon as it is composed.
What has happened over the past five years is that people rarely even send an email anymore. First there was MySpace, where you could add friends by the mouse click. Then, it was Facebook, and recently, Twitter. Now, communication is more truncated than ever, although few people seem concerned about this.
One of my favorite books on our cultural downward descent was Morris Berman’s, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman clearly depicts the intellectual decline of the west with a prophetic urgency. While there are those cultural critics that think this downward spiral can be halted, and even reversed, Berman’s pronouncement is dire. There is no reversing the trend and little we can do to arrest the corporate clutch of our communication that has become ubiquitous.
There are those who consider Berman too dark and depressing and prefer to remain in denial. Books like TTOAC aren’t for those types. They remain ensconced in their cocoon, informed by reality television, video games and WIRED articles.
On the contrary, one of the most intriguing aspects of Berman’s book isn’t any hope of a cultural revival, but what he characterizes as some hope for anyone that desires to find meaning in a culture that’s rapidly disintegrating. It’s what Berman refers to as the “monastic option,” and he calls those who accept the charge as “new monastic individuals,” or NMIs. The monastic aspect is a nod to medieval monks who retreated from conventional society in an attempt to preserve its literary and historical treasures.
What Berman is talking about is creating “zones of intelligence” in both a private, as well as local ways. He maintains that it is important that these monastic activities be kept out of the public eye as much as possible. He specifically picks on simplistic efforts like “fifty ways to save the earth” and “voluntary simplicity,” to name two. Berman cites Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the “book people.” It is about adopting a “guerrilla” way of life. I found his ideas intriguing back in 2000 when the book first came out, and his prescriptions ring truer now, almost a decade later.
What could be done to adopt our own monastic option? What if a small band of monastic individuals made a pact to write letters periodically, possibly once per month to one another? I’ve heard of others who have done similar things. We could return to mailing articles to one another, cut from newspapers, or copied from a magazine, much the way these things happened before people began incessantly forwarding links.
Technology has resulted in a truncated style of communication. The nature of technology lies in its ability to reduce all things to a binary function—the number one, or a zero. This makes communication, and in particular, correspondence, transactional vs. remaining relational.
Most human beings have a gregarious side. Our evolution has incorporated storytelling and narrative as part of our development. Anthropologists have discovered remnants of early communication involving elements of stories, even if these were just pictures on the wall of a cave.
Writing letters has been man’s preferred method of communication, at least since the invention of paper. Historians have been able to piece together the lives, and develop portraits of important men (and women) primarily by sorting through their letters and correspondence. David McCullough’s delightful book on the life of John Adams relied heavily on Adams’ letters, back and forth between Adams and his wife Abigail, with Thomas Jefferson, and other historical figures that are now revered, who happened to be contemporaries of Adams.
I don’t know what will happen to history and those men and women living during our current epoch, a period of emails, Facebook wall postings, and Twitter. Will it be possible to reconstruct a life 100 years out into the future, if nothing tangible remains? What kind of archiving of email correspondence is taking place? If an ISP has records of your communication today, what happens 25, 50, or 100 years out, given the possibility of mergers, acquisitions, or the disappearance of the ISP, displaced by some newer, more effective communications platform?
Will historians acquire an alternative means to capture people’s correspondence? What becomes of history at that point, and does anyone even give a damn about it?
I don’t want this post to devolve into a philosophical exercise. It does concern me on several different levels, however, including technology’s obvious orientation towards altering our ability to remain connected to our past. I see this as one of technology’s most serious negative implications, its ability to sever our tether to who we were.
I’ve been ruminating about what could be done to enhance Berman’s model of new monasticism, and letter writing might be an entry point to becoming a new monastic individual, or a NMI. Choosing to be a member of a small group of letter writers, sending off a letter, possibly once per month, handwritten (or not, depending on whether you still have some semblance of penmanship remaining), one or two pages in length, dispatched to a post office box, roadside mailbox, or apartment letter-box seems like an exercise worth considering. An added benefit might be the anticipation of receiving a delayed response in the form of a letter, which takes time to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
One of the challenges to aging in our own time is the rapid acceleration of change. Change no longer brings improvements, like moving from ice box to refrigerator did for food storage, or the reductions in physical labor required to live, where bodies wore out by the age of 55, or 60 (hence the age of retirement being 65). Granted, even those kinds of improvements wrought by technology could bring contrary opinions about benefit. Unless you subscribe to the belief that all technology is suspect, we might agree that technology did bring improvements in quality of life. Of course, there are those like John Zerzan and others who present ideas positing contrarian views about technology and its impact on civilization. I’ve read Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and others. Their points have some appeal, but that’s fodder for another day.
My point here is that the acceleration of change and technology’s reach, have far exceeded our capacity to regulate and set parameters for the benefit of all of us, not only the elite. I think of the reach of technology today and its impact on our ability to preserve basic privacy, if we choose. Governments around the world can track and monitor everything we do, or say, and our own vote whether to participate, or refuse, has been usurped by the onslaught of change.
Writing a letter won’t necessarily alter technology’s relentless march forward (or backward, depending on your orientation), but it might allow us a periodic reconnect with the human side.
I’d be happy to get the ball rolling by writing a letter to the first five people that send an email with your name and address. Once you receive my letter, I hope you’ll consider sending back a letter response of your own.
In my way of seeing things, this reestablishes a more human (and maybe, humane) way of interacting and communicating.
[A regular reader points out that I have no listed email, which might be a problem if you would like a personal letter. I'll use an innocuous email for obvious reasons (spam and all that other good stuff connected to "benign and altruistic" technology); here it is-- mediadrop04 (at) yahoo (dot) com, remember to replace the (at) with an @ and the (dot) with a .--Jim]