New York Times bestselling author Simon Garfield is worried that we are losing track of our communications. No, he's not griping about NSA mass surveillance and government storage of our daily exchanges—He's concerned that we risk losing them forever.
Garfield’s newest book, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, traces the evolution of letters, from Roman wood chips discovered near Hadrian's Wall, to the "wonders and terrors" of email in the modern world. This is the final volume of a "loose trilogy" covering the changes wrought by our digital age, while exploring the question of what it means to be human? Just My Type (2010) explores type and typographic communication. On The Map (2012) covers cartography and our sense of the geographic world.
Garfield read widely through great letters written by everyone from John Keats to Jack Kerouac, and came to a frightening realization. Because of the flow and flux of digital information, we risk losing a key part of human history, our letters, altogether. When I interviewed him recently, Garfield noted that:
Other than possibly details of where we’re going to meet one another, short Twitter comments, and a few factual observations, I don’t necessarily think we’re going to leave an historical record behind us, and this worries me.
Others are worried about this possible loss, as well. In April, Google sent a message to 425 million users announcing its new Inactive Account Manager. ("Not a great name, we know," admitted product manager Andreas Tuerk.) This was Google’s way of joining the debate—what happens when we are no longer around to claim our own data—a digital afterlife planning service, of sorts. Tuerk notes:
Not many of us like thinking about death, especially our own, but making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So we’re launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account.
In a sense, this is an odd dilemma. Emails should be far more permanent than letters. First of all, the sender has a copy and so does the recipient, unlike a physical letter which once it is sent is essentially gone. A physical letter is also far more likely to be affected by the vagaries of the postal service, while email generally gets through 99.9% of the time. But once you start considering firewalls, passwords and things like that it becomes another issue altogether. Your things might be safe in the cloud, but then who has access to the cloud?
This isn’t only a technical problem of storage either, Garfield says, but also one about changing media in a fast-moving world. In the same way that new file formats and hardware make it difficult to access the computer art created half a century ago, so the changing methods of communication might mean that the ways in which we communicate with one another will not be as readily accessible as time goes on. Garfield
Emails are really just a passing phase. We kid ourselves if we think these are a permanent replacement to letters, or that this is just about emails versus letters. Everything we see from social media suggests that people like communicating using shorter and shorter messages. In ten years time, the form will have changed altogether. It might be video, with the ability to record and easily sort through endless amounts of video using our smartphones or Google Glass headsets. But it’s definitely changing.
The problem similarly isn’t just about protecting the emails that we have, but also about whether or not digital communication proves a worthy successor to handwritten letters. To The Letter is full of beautiful examples of such letters, many of which prove extremely revealing about the personalities behind them—not only in terms of what they say, but in the use of crossings-out, the type of paper used, and even the addition of bespoke graphical elements incorporated alongside the words.
This is something Garfield says is often lost in the world of mass communication. As Facebook’s triumph over MySpace proved, when it comes to wide adoption of a technology, ease-of-use trumps personalization every time.
Because of the universality of something like email, that necessarily means that it is an impersonal form of communication because it is something that everyone uses in exactly the same way. One thing we’re losing about letters is the fact that every letter expresses someone’s personality. It’s about expression, not just communication. You don’t get that with emails. If in twenty years time there is a book of someone’s collected emails—downloadable to the latest e-reader—all of them are going to look the same. You won’t get the same sense of personality. Compare that to the collected letters of Paul Cézanne, where you might have illustrations added in. It’s not just about what is written—but how it is written, too. Letters may have been written in a rush, or be coffee-stained, or perfumed, or even tear-stained. These are all added layers of human emotion that we risk losing in the digital age.
What Garfield worries about isn’t just the message then, but also the medium. Of course, as he points out, email isn’t the only form of digital communication out there. Twitter offers a service equivalent to being able to send out dozens of short-form open letters each day, many of them augmented by multimedia images and videos. A number of apps, often with the aid of so-called smart pens, can mimic the effect of writing on paper in a digital paradigm. Haptic technology might one day simulate the feeling of different types of paper for communications, and IBM predicts computers will be able to taste and smell within five years—both of which would lead to big changes in the way we communicate.
But is this a worthy substitute? Or to put it another way, is everything we gain worth what it is that we lose?
To The Letter might sound, on the surface, like a book written by a techno-skeptic—mourning the loss of "real letter writing" in a digital world, but Simon Garfield is keen to point out that he is no luddite. Born in 1960, Garfield grew up with the burgeoning consumer electronics age, is a keen owner of gadgets, and his writing over the years evidences a deep love of technology. (Perhaps his best-known book, Just My Type, opens with a discussion of Steve Jobs’ revolutionary decision to include font choices on the original Macintosh.)
When I point this out, Garfield says:
You’re absolutely right. I’m 53 now, so this is something that has occurred during my professional career. I wrote my first two books on a typewriter, and everything after that on a Macintosh. But in a sense, type, maps and letter-writing were all part of my pre-digital upbringing. I don’t have a nostalgic view that everything was better—in many ways, the digital world has opened up opportunities—but it is important to look at how the digital world has changed our understanding of these mediums. I can weigh both of them up, and see their pros and their cons.
Garfield is excited to see where communication technologies go in the future, but it is also important to consider how we are going to archive our past. More than that, he hopes that we continue the realize the importance of in-depth communication. In a world where 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is generated each day, we need to make sure that our human experience is preserved as best it can.
And as useful as emails might be, there’s nothing like receiving a letter through the mail.
To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing is published by Gotham. It is out 14 November.
[Image: Flickr user Evelyn Flint]