My hands became tired. My muscles ached. My handwriting started to deteriorate. It took me an hour to finish two pages.
I was writing a letter.
My son had just settled in his first term at university in the UK, away from home in a new country for the first time, and I had some thoughts I wanted to share with him, my musings and pride at his achievements at this important milestone in his life. But instead of heading straight to my keyboard, I picked up my favourite fountain pen, dusted off my old letter pad, settled comfortably in my chair, and started to write. It was an eye-opening experience. I used different muscles than I am used to — both in my hands and I believe also in my brain. I am convinced it would have been a different letter had I emailed him. You tend to think longer and contemplate more before you put pen to paper. Because by then you are committed, for there is no backspace button to go over what you’ve just written. I realised that it’s been a very long time since I’ve used a pen to write anything longer than my name or signature.
So it got me thinking. Could a piece of equipment or technology change not only how we write but also what we write? Surely it’s just a tool? But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that technology has surreptitiously made us undergo a huge change with our use of language. BPC (Before the PC), there used to be classses on how to write business letters (remember those?). They contained a formal greeting and ended with a formal sign-off. In the past, it was not uncommon to end formal letters with, “I remain, Dear Sir, your most obedient servant”. With time it was shortened to “Yours sincerely”, and in the age of email it was transformed to “best regards”, which too often became “best”. It seems that in our daily haste we cannot even be bothered to add one more word.
Email changed our perspective; it changed our approach to the written communication. It has become a half-way house between formal and informal communication and we rid ourselves of the formality of greetings. Its ostensible ephemeral nature let us drop our guard and we emailed each other without regard to long term consequences. The irony, though, is that a physical letter is a lot more ephemeral than an email. We all know that emails are perennial. We think we have deleted an email, but in fact, once we hit that send button, we have committed it forever in cyberspace. Mythology abounds with examples of court cases where long-forgotten emails sent between colleagues rose from the ashes many years later.
And then came SMS and Instant Messaging (eg Whatsapp). Writing became conversations, back and forth banter in the written form. Spelling went out the door, and emoticons made their introduction. I must admit, the purist in me resisted using these for so long, but then I gave in. They’re just so convenient. But in that tradeoff for convenience I became lazy. It is so much easier (and quicker) to find an emoticon to display an emotion than to grapple with the right words. As a consequence I find that I am losing my vocabulary, at least what I call my “long tail vocabulary”, those words that occur infrequently in English — but have subtlety and richness in meaning.
Constraints help us be more creative (see my previous post on Photography), for it forces us to take our time. Thanks to technology, we rush through life, multitasking and surfing along, in our quest to be ever more efficient. But in so doing, something must give. We don’t let our minds wander; we’re not actively in the moment. If we’re waiting in a queue for more than one minute, we bring out our phone in a sudden FOMO moment (Fear Of Missing Out) and check our status update, read the latest breaking news, or listen to a podcast.
But there is a band of people who are returning nostalgically to “old tech”. And it’s not only baby boomers. There’s a resurgence of shooting on film. Vinyl records have not died despite the most dire predictions. Vinyl forces us to take our time. Time to contemplate the album cover, time to remove the record and place the needle gently on the first track of Side A. And time to listen to the whole record, with no shuffle play, no track-jumping and no listening whilst jogging.
There’s something to be said about “old tech”, whether a pen in hand, or a turntable in the living room. It beckons us to slow down. If you have a chance, buy a Fujifilm Instax (Polaroid) camera that has a roll of only 10 pictures. Use a map the next time you’re driving to a new place and it will force you to look around you to get your bearings. If you know someone with a turntable and some vinyl records, put your favourite album on, settle in a comfortable sofa and let the music wash over you. Or else simply take a pen and write a long letter to a friend or family member. I know I enjoyed it so much the first time that I did it again when my daughter followed in her brother’s footsteps and went to university in the UK.
But the good news is we can still do that with today’s technology. We just need to take the time.