taking the passive out of passive-aggressive

Thursday, March 31, 2005


In high school, my BFF and I communicated constantly--by notes passed in class, long letters written from family vacations, on the telephone. We often wonder now what we might have done back then if we'd had email and IM, texting and cell phones. Our ability to connect with each other, all the time, talking usually about not much at all, would have increased exponentially. We'd have been able to send each other amusing photos during classes, even if we weren't in the same room. We'd have been able to talk all night on IM without our mothers screaming "GET OFF THE G*D PHONE, what on earth could y'all have to talk about, you saw each other all day!"

But we would have lost something, too: the artifiacts of all that communication. In my basement I have scores of notes and letters we wrote to each other, complete with drawings and marginalia; the epistolary memoir of our friendship. Every once in a while I go back through these notes and suddenly remember, with a sensory jolt, the very specific experience of those four years. I can almost smell the formaldehyde in the biology lab, the gym locker room. I can remember teachers' and classmates' faces as if they were right next to me, frozen in time.

Would it be the same if all this had been digital? Would we even have the data any more? Would it be lost forever to forgotten file formats, crashed hard drives? And if it did still exist, would those binary communications carry anywhere near the power of the artifacts we created during those years?

Since the advent of email, I've received maybe a handful of letters. Mostly, though, postal mail is reserved for wedding invitations, bills, circulars, greeting cards, and new-baby announcements.




No more envelopes promising entertainment and news from afar, sometimes even decorated and stuffed with drawings and photos and scrawled words. No more waiting in between, waiting for a response to your letter, the anticipation half the fun of the correspondance.

This isn't to say that I haven't had amusing and important email exchanges over the years. Far from it; I have entire relationships that wouldn't be possible without email and IM. Some of my greatest long-distance friendships over the years have survived and flourished precisely because of the technology. But it comes at a price: the loss of the physical object.

It's not at all clear, even to people smarter than I, how human beings really interact with objects in the physical world. To some, it's not even clear that there is a physical world. But in the realm of perception, at least, digital and analog are qualitatively different. This isn't some luddite's view of technology as the prime corruptive force in the universe, or the musings of a woman going less-than-gracefully into middle age--mostly. I'm mourning the passing of something that was once--and still is--very important to me. And I think our children will be poorer for not knowing the way it feels to conduct correspondance on paper, to cart boxes of letters and photos from house to house. We are somehow anchored by our objects, and they help us identify who we are.

28 Comments:

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Beautiful. I was right there with you, smelling the formaldehyde. I don't think all is lost, though. My daughter is a writer. She writes notes and stories. She even writes out math problems. She loves the feel of the pencil in her hands, she loves to trace shapes.

I'm so proud of her love for language and her delicious handwriting that I am even proud of me for giving them to her.

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