Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.
You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words….
Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
Solnit is one of the finest writers of her generation, so it’s a bit sad to see her recycling these tired complaints. Even if every word of her essay is true, it has been said thousands of times already. Sven Birkerts got it all into The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, and since then people have just been doodling variations on his themes.
But here’s the problem I have with all screeds of this particular type. If you happen to be old enough to remember the days of letter-writing that Solnit limns so nostalgically, I invite you to perform the following thought-experiment:
- Estimate the number of letters you wrote in a given year.
- Estimate the number of letters you meant to write, planned to write, knew you ought to write, and yet never quite got around to writing.
- Calculate the ratio of those numbers.
In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter. But a moment’s reflection shows that that’s not true. People send emails who never would have gotten around to writing letters or even making phone calls; people (mostly younger ones) who find email too frictiony a medium might send a hundred texts a day. If we’re going to understand how these technologies are changing us, we need to make the right comparisons: not one long hand-written letter to one brief email, but one long hand-written letter to several emails, or dozens of texts exchanged with multiple people in a given day.
An average twenty-year-old today writes far, far more to his or her friends than the average twenty-year-old of any time in human history. His or her experience is remarkable primarily for how textual it is, how many written words comprise it. We should start by acknowledging that fact, and if we go on to form a critique, we should have a clearer-eyed view of the past as well.
All that said, there are some good points about distraction and the alternatives to distraction in Solnit’s essay; I’ll try to write about those another time. But the nostalgia here is really problematic.