The Future Portrait of the Present

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E-mails are so simple and accessible that they are mostly shallow and meaningless in the long term. Most of my job works around sending and receiving e-mails. This is largely because computer files can be attached, which at least adds purpose and utility, and passing on small amounts of information is simply the most practical option over picking up the phone. Then there’s the “conversation” closer that comes after passing on those small amounts of information that’s simply “Thanks.”

I’m Canadian, my clients are Canadian, and that’s just what we say in our polite and humble giant country. It’s professional and it’s courteous and it’s respectful, and those are all important things in an economy based on service. But the e-mail itself, containing information below that’s already stored elsewhere, but with a simple one-word message not of substance to the overall product of the business relationship, is useless. It’s sent out of an expected level of courtesy, but it’s only expected because it’s so easy.

I received a Christmas card from my grandfather with a cheque and a letter. The letter explained why he sent the cheque in spite of my campaign to end Giftmas. He wrote of understanding my reasoning and respecting my initiative, but he chooses to continue doing this. He’s been suggested to stop this before, by his companion or whatever you may call her, because she thinks his grandchildren are ungrateful and that he should be spending all of his money on himself. Leaving out all personal biases towards the source of this sentiment and the latter of its two justifications, there is supporting evidence for the lack of gratitude. We’ve fallen out of the habit of writing him back thank-you letters.

I broke that streak for my past birthday and wrote him a thank-you letter. I included general updates on my life as a whole. Grandparents tend to want to know these things, after all, and if I don’t like how the message is getting distorted in the game of telephone through my mother who passes it onto my aunt before it reaches his ears, I might as well cut out the middle(wo)men.

There are billions of e-mails sent every day. Historians of the future, if electronic records are sustained, will have too much useless bullshit to sift through to get a real grasp of the social history of our time as communicated in writing between regular people. Letters are such a rich primary resource for academic pursuits for the past; they are a path to follow, with exact dates attached, that can span across countries and continents and cultures. They used to be written by the privileged literate elite, and now that our developed societies have nearly universal literacy one may think that the magnitude of information to sift through would deter historians from pursuing this source of research. But even history of the last century where literacy was high and letters were common for nearly everyone is researched through records of personal correspondence. Soldiers in the two World Wars writing to their wives, political prisoners or refugees in exile writing to the colleagues they aren’t free to see, family members keeping in touch as one embarks on a path in step with a broader social movement – these are all rich sources of data for social historians and it’s worthwhile tapping into the forests worth of paper to find them.

Paper is at least sorted differently from electronic mail, and not password protected. We throw out flyers and file our bills or financial statements until we decide to shred them. If we still wrote to each other socially by mail, to make it worth the postage we would write rich in content, and we should consider it worth keeping these letters so they can appreciate in value over time. It’s a self-filtering process, to have letters that will appreciate in value kept separate and more accessible than dull daily business.

My grandfather grew up in the era when social correspondence was still on paper, and when it was at its peak. He was a youth in the war years, with two brothers flying war planes in European skies, who never made it back home. Paper correspondence was the only practical means of keeping in touch when family was an ocean away, and the very real chance of never seeing them again face to face made such communication infinitely more important. The value of mail is mostly lost on people in this era, because when we write to people we write shallow surface e-mails of little bits of transactional information, or mere formalities of etiquette. Texts are only so long, tweets are only so long, and Facebook posts are, well, just there to put on a face and not much of sincere personal interaction. But having those opportunities to communicate little by little breaks down the long form that contains comprehensive sentiments and experiences. Without letters sent or personal diaries kept in the way they were for the past few hundred years we are erasing our present from the future.

I don’t know if my grandfather keeps the letters I’ve sent him over the years – and since I can’t remember what I may have written as a child part of me hopes he hasn’t – but I’d rather put myself in a position to get strange looks from people for saying I still write letter mail, because I would give them strange looks back. Maybe that would get the gears rolling in their heads that there is a long-term purpose to this, and maybe our era too dense in information will leave a trail of usable stories that serve a better purpose in the future than what’s encoded in 1’s and 0’s. Historians will know that when they see a paper kept in its original but opened envelope that the content matters more than just a hollow one-word “Thanks.”

(Side note: somewhat hypocritically to this, I recently came across and discarded an elaborate collection of notes we used to pass around in class in high school. To be fair, the quality of substance in them was questionable at best, as it was mostly drawings of genitalia and writing the variety of their corresponding formal or colloquial words. I’m not going to draw a bunch of penises and mail it to my grandfather…unless there’s a really, really important reason.)

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