On the Extinction of Letter Writing, and Other Musings on Communication in the Modern Age

September 3, 2007

I just finished reading a biography of Isaac Newton. And while reading, I was struck by something interesting: a great deal of the information about and by Newton existed in letter form. Letters written by him to family members, members of the Royal Society, or rivals like Leibniz. A great bulk of what we know about Newton, we know because of letter/mail correspondence.

And then I got to thinking about today. The majority of my non-face to face, written communication with others happens in one of maybe four ways: IM, Facebook, MySpace, or e-mail. None of these forms of communication really allow for meaningful archival. And perhaps more importantly, none of these means of communications, including e-mail, which is the most obvious relative of paper letter correspondence, allows for the kind of reflection inherent in the plain letter writing.

When you wrote a letter two hundred years ago or so [before the advent of trains, telegraphs, and other methods of high speed information transfer], you had a large amount of time between sending out the letter and getting a reply back. I would imagine [not being to well informed on the history of communication] that this would allow for much more in depth, thoughtful letters. If you know that you won’t be talking to someone for a month or two, you would probably put much more thought into every word you put down onto paper. At the same time, you would have a greater opportunity to discuss non-superficial topics, as the greater amount of space alloted to letters would be conducive to a greater amount of thought.

All that is dead now. IM’s more than not consist mainly in updates on current life status. Facebook usually serves as solely a means of getting [and keeping] in touch with distant friends. MySpace, well, let’s just not even mention MySpace. E-mail still offers in-depth capabilities, but at the same time the near zero time between sending out the correspondence and the other person receiving creates a sense of urgency behind the letter writing. Almost as if you’re in a two way conversation with the person, only separated by the computer screen.

Now, I’m sure that I’m just romanticizing the days of old. A great majority of the population probably couldn’t even read or write two hundred years ago, and even less of them probably had the inclination or leisure time to. Most correspondence probably originated from upper class aristocrats.

But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder at the democratization of communication.

I suppose only time, and history, will tell.

PS – I wonder if blogs emerged as a substitute for letter writing. Blogs are not as personal, but they are far richer than any of the other forms of digital communication available. That would explain the surprising popularity of online journals [like this one]. Huh.

PPS – I might try to bring back letter writing. We’ll see where that goes.


2 Responses to “On the Extinction of Letter Writing, and Other Musings on Communication in the Modern Age”

  1. Brian said

    Damn, I’ll totally start writing letters to everyone if you do. That way we’ll be prepared after all technology goes haywire and tries to kill us, and the only solution is to destroy all technology and never use it again. That’ll teach the us generation!

  2. Antony said

    I totally agree with your point of view and though you brought up some interested points, especially nearing the end.

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