1.11.2006

the death of written or typewritten letters and a possible replacement

Last semester, in Advanced Poetry Writing, my professor Michael S. Harper spoke several times that the use of written or typewritten letters (as in, epistles) are dying out. And for him, this change is tragic. Authors' letters have been collected and printed in books for thousands of years. (For example, I believe the letters of famous Roman orator Cicero were collected and published soon after his death.) This long-standing tradition has a number of reasons. Firstly, good writers usually write well, even when writing casually; thus, the letters of writers, and especially those of poets, often have significant aesthetic or stylistic merit. Secondly, authors often write about their most important ideas and beliefs more casually in letters than in their formal publications, potentially giving readers a better understanding of their thoughts. Finally, authors reveal things about their personal lives through their letters that are often obscured, masked, or simply not discussed in other writings, and for those who consider these authors important, their personal lives are usually interesting as well.

So, why are written letters, so to speak, dying out? Technological advances, namely the computer and the internet, make hand-written or typewritten letters in a certain sense unpractical. Email is the basic communication tool of choice for much of modern business, not to mention academia. Email has a few significant differences from normal mail. Firstly, people are almost always less formal in an email than in a written letter. Traditional greetings and headings, for one, are not as widely recognized or thought appropriate in emails. Many emails do not even have greetings or signatures within the body of the text. Secondly, emails are naturally less malleable than a letter written by hand or by typewriter. You can't just throw a doodle into the corner of an email, and most emails don't even give you the opportunity to work with margins as a word processor program would. Finally, and most importantly, emails leave no papertrail. As most people do not print out their emails, and as many email services have automatic deletion of emails after a certain point, emails usually disappear after a time. Forgot any differences in the quality of the letters; there often won't even be letters for the collecting!

But here's where I think it starts to get interesting: while letters (and its byproduct, emails) will perhaps not be as prominent, other technological changes lead to opportunities that people hundreds of years ago probably couldn't even dream about. With a computer, huge amounts of information can be kept within an extremely small physical space. Consequently, I foresee the possibility that a famous person's personal computer space could easily become in the future open to the public, or at least to scholars.

Here's a really bad hypothetical which will give you an idea of what I'm implying: imagine famous poet Ezra Pound lived (technologically) during the 21st century instead the 20th. After he dies, DVD-Rs are produced and sold that contain all the writings typed on his computer. So, you can find 7 drafts of his "Sestina: Alteforte," random thoughts collected about what he wanted The Cantos to be, a bunch of really bad poems he would have deleted had he known it would seen by another human being, etc. You get his Mussolini desktop wallpaper complete with "DOWN WITH USURY" written on the bottom.

...I hope these examples are getting across the possibilities here. Given that people's personal journals have regularly been published in the past, I wouldn't be shocked if famous people's personal computer's data were made easily available past the time of their death, if there was anything interesting there to begin with. The truth is: since technologically it would be easy to do, it seems altogether possible.

I'm not going to argue how good or bad I find this possibility to be, at least in this post, but merely to suggest that it is possible.

6 comments:

Seb said...

Neat thoughts.

Personally, I'm more optimistic about our digital legacy. It's true that it looks like about two decades worth of text has been deleted due to computer capacity, but we are reaching the point where computer memory is so cheap that storing text is very easy. Consider Gmail, with it's mission of allowing its users to never delete an email.

Meanwhile, there's an aspect of modern communication which you didn't mention, which is the instant message. In a lot of the current instant messaging software, there isn't very good logging of conversations. But that will certainly change, and already has already to some extent.

If anything, instant messaging is an even more informal medium than email--and yet it is as durable as any digital content.

Finally, blogs, livejournals, and messageboards all allow for writing less formal and effortful than the traditional essay.

The result, I think, is not one of lack of digital, textual legacy, but, if anything, a superabundance of it. Everybody has a blog. Everybody will have cached email and instant messages. And prolific writers will most likely be among the most prolific in their other communications. With the internet, we are drowning in text. I predict that in the future the problem facing historians won't be scarcity--it will be search.

Cristi said...

funny you guys should mention this - one of the reasons Scott and I started this blog was an ongoing discussion about the generation of text in different media, specifically IMs. we've never actually posted about it, though... maybe we'll get to that one day.

sweet post, josh!

Adam said...

No one will ever publish transcripts of America Online Instant Messenger conversations with their loved one.

Nor can very much of emotional weight be transmitted in that sort of hasty spurting format, except between people who've become intimate enough to transmit between one another on that level with a minimum of actual speech.

However, one could still write a fairly riveting epistillary-type novel of AIM conversation, I suppose, though I do believe some of the decorum just drains right out in the midst of these bold colors abbreviation and yellow barfing faces.

I still write letters, not nearly as many as I ought to, and what I mean really is I wish I wrote a lot of letters and sent them by the post. I do detect a greater range of content and contact in the experience of having to wait, of using your hands to tear open and touch something that another has touched, not just look at the same arrangement of different pixels on another screen.

I guess in the end though the way to safeguard a textual legacy is to put things to text that are WORTH SAVING.

Cristi said...

i beg to differ, adam! several such conversations are already published on this blog.

i don't think aim has reduced the subtlety or depth of conversation. it's just faster and more widely accessible.

when everyone wrote letters, not everyone wrote letters. you had to be able to write, first. aim, and the internet in general, are much more democratic in that sense.

Adam said...

Cristi's right but then we have to consider that we're in a sort of strange self referential area when it comes to what's published on THIS blog. There will be no great leather bound Instant Messenger romances.

Or maybe there will. When i reference "what's worth saving" in previous comment what I really mean is "something people will want to keep."

Perhaps we're simply pushing momentums that make us less inclined to want to keep anything?

Cristi said...

or maybe we're just so confident that everything will be inadvertently saved that we don't consider leather binding anymore.

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