Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 30, 2013

Solnit's nostalgia

Rebecca Solnit writes,

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.

4 comments:

  • "In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter."

    I don't think she says or implies any such thing. She says, accurately, that the occasional writing of letters has been pretty much entirely displaced by continuous electronic communications - and that the very speed and quantity of those electronic communications gives to personal correspondence today a very different feel and "rhythm" than it had when it consisted of more occasional but longer letters. I think the nostalgia you imagine in her imagination may, in this particular case, be imaginary.

  • I think I’m reading Solnit rightly, Nick. Consider this progression: “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.”

    So personal mail is treated here as a regular, a common occurrence. (Which for me, anyway, it never was: bills and business stuff came every day, letters once in a long while. And far more common that letters were the brief, text-message-length postcards. “Wish you were here!”)

    Then: “Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters.”Note the failure to acknowledge that everyone who uses email writes far more emails than he or she ever wrote letters.

    “Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages.”

    Letters give way to emails which “deteriorate” in length and complexity until they become text messages. She’s portraying the straightforward replacement of letters by other forms of communication, and not acknowledging how rare letters were, for almost everyone, in comparison to texts and emails. But people today are not writing texts and emails instead of writing letters; they’re writing texts and emails instead of writing nothing at all.

    And about nostalgia: “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.” I don't know how you can get more nostalgic than that.

  • Alan, My criticism was a narrow one. In order to back up your charge of nostalgia, you imputed to her the belief that "every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter." I just pointed out that that's ludicrous and actually runs counter to her fundamental point that correspondence and communication have an entirely different rhythm today. Nick

  • Well, howse about we splits the difference and make half of every brief email one of them thar pre-paid postcards..... or you cud dash offen one of them thar single sheet blue airmail things you licked and folded togetter.

    Howse about that. Why must thar always be fightin' and killin'. Why cain't thar be peace in the uncanny valley?

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