|tags:||Biography & Autobiography|
CORRESPONDENCE — for the sake of corresponding, at least — is going (has gone?) the way of the carte de visite. For scholars, or anyone who cares about the historical traces we leave, the extinction of the personal letter is an incalculable loss.
Email, snail mail's evolutionary successor, is an epistolary form for an age of overwork, data deluge, and time famine. The prevailing style favors terse bursts, often devolving into sentence fragments; replies consisting of a single sentence, or even a word, aren't uncommon.
To Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, "the relentless growth of in-box overload" is the kudzu overgrowing our cognitive commons. In his "Email Charter," Anderson counsels Xtreme Brevity: "If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message)." (Even the hyphen in "e-mail" has to go, apparently, jettisoned like some vestigial appendage in the evolutionary struggle for Survival of the Pithiest.)
Ironically, the generation that came of age with texting regards email with the same indulgent contempt its parents reserve for postal mail. To text-only teens, email is a laughable anachronism from some steampunk past, like those pneumatic tube systems still in use in some hospitals. Texting, like IM and Twitter, encourages an acronym-riddled shorthand — a blipspeak — that makes the telegram look like a Homeric epic. (If you remember telegrams. Or Homer.)
Even so, this isn't another jeremiad about the Death of Literacy and the Spenglerian Decline of Civilization. I've read discussion thread comments on Facebook, Boing Boing, and The Awl whose Wildean wit and devastating ripostes are easily the equal of what passes for high style and critical brilliance in Harper's or The New Yorker.
To be sure, the data compression of our written exchanges, not to mention our tendency to broadcast them over public address systems like Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to the more intimate channel of one-on-one correspondence), is changing us as writers and social animals. Out: never-ending debates, virtuoso digression, poetic reveries, wordplay. In: bullet-point lists, forwarded links, getting straight to the point (preferably in the subject line). The less-is-more aesthetic of modernism, which percolated out of machine-age streamlining and Bauhausian architecture and into American prose style via Hemingway, Pound, and Strunk & White, reaches its endpoint, paradoxically, in the texts, posts, and instant messages of our postmodern (or is it post-postmodern?) moment. It will attain its purest expression when conversation, pecked out on cell phones, consists of a question mark from the sender and an exclamation point in reply. It's all about information density, time conservation, the Attention Economy — catchphrases that will do nicely as epitaphs for the age of great correspondences.
But, more than the data-compressed brevity and just-the-facts utilitarianism forced on us by our times, it's the etherealization of written communication, and its subsequent ephemeralization, that ensure the demise of correspondence as a social art form. All that was ink on paper has melted into air, and who archives air? For all we know, email...read more