Where tech aligns

Passing Notes

What we lose when correspondence goes paperless.

“There’s so much to glean from a letter’s style,” Emma Goldberg writes. “The ebullience of a run-on sentence and the mischief of an exclamation point” in a letter could unleash a torrent of intimacy, whether addressing the most momentous or the most mundane details of the world. “If you ever run away,” essayist Charles Lamb wrote to Mary Shelley in 1830, “don’t run away to a country village, which has been a market town, but is such no longer.”

The week days would be intolerable, but for the superior invention which they show here in making Sundays worse. Clowns stand about what was the market place, and spit minute-ly to relieve ennui. … Clowns, clods, and things below cows. They assemble to affect the air with dulness from Waltham marshes. They clear off o’ the Monday mornings, like other fogs.

The letter, having survived for so many centuries, was at once solid in its basic form and flexible to suit a multitude of purposes. Madame de Sévigné’s letters give us a clear picture of the ancien regime. Jane Welsh Carlyle’s letters give the full measure of her legendary charm and intellect writing to many Victorian greats, including her irritable husband. Lord Chesterfield’s witty, cynical advice to his son may still prove useful today. Cuban independence leader José Martí was a master of the form for personal and political intents. A single memo from McGeorge Bundy could wipe a Vietnamese village off the map. Sub Pop Records rejected demo submissions with a form letter that opened with “Dear Loser,” a neat rhetorical tactic that connected the rejects with the label’s ironic brand without necessarily sugarcoating the truth.

But lately, we have “lost faith” in letters. Not so much because the now predominant online communication is automatically better but because in light of its ascendence, letters appear to be tricky things. They can conceal, or can be concealed after the fact, they can fly into performativity and rhetorical flourish without saying anything of substance. Like other analogue or formalized writing, letters may create in us a second, perhaps a third voice. But, Goldberg insists, if we want to restore faith in intimate communication, “we would have to look online.”

The rise of digital correspondence was rapid, but its presence is now taken as granted. Nearly anyone with a firm enough grasp of the alphabet is throwing verbal data in all directions. For most this is entirely perfunctory, but Goldberg wants us to stop and consider the kind of linguistic magic we inadvertently work on each other just trying to solidify dinner plans. This leads her down some heterodox paths. “Consider the group chat,” she writes:

A million loosely assembled constellations of people who were on some trip together and decided to formalize a space for periodic personal updates. Then people react. They give a heart, or exclamation point, or a thumbs down – the digital equivalent of a nod or a headshake. Normal questions get five question marks: What should we have for dinner tonight????? Periods disappear, replaced by endless back-and-forth where thoughts land on top of one another in the comfort but also disquiet of low-stakes conversation headed more toward an “lol” than epiphany.

“The laws of language that we learned in school have disappeared: capital versus lower case, subject versus object, present perfect and simple past.” The result is not a degrading of our language as some pedantic alarmists have long feared, but a kind of reorientation, one more spontaneous and authentic, in which “our thoughts [are] undifferentiated from speech.” Goldberg even gets all starry-eyed at the prospect of “somebody’s grandkids sorting through zip files of their texts and emails someday. … [D]ebriefing a night out, dissecting a crush, deconstructing a recipe, deconstructing a meme.”

Certainly it’s not impossible that online messages could “slowly” restore our faith in letters. Even now there may be a Jane Carlyle on WhatsApp, a Lord [dot] Chesterfield [at] ProtonMail dot com, or a Discord constantly riled up by an Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and John Whistler. But Goldberg’s larger point seems to render these as limited, even unlikely cases, because online communication is simply not the same. “By spending so much time online, sharing our thoughts and feelings, we warp language via emotional contagion.” Even so, Goldberg’s optimism betrays a significant drawback.

“Language is more global than ever,” she writes, “rapidly morphing, shaken loose from the confines of our immediate circles.” Despite the gnashing of countless pundits, the internet really is bringing us together. Even when we are in conflict we tend to talk with the same linguistic tics and patterns. Internet users trade slightly modified versions of the same set of jokes. They can sustain amusement for months at least on a single meme format. Mutual understanding has reached unprecedented highs online; though as an inverse trade-off, individuality is low. The globe on which this language proliferates is rather flat.

Goldberg is also not blind to other drawbacks. If excess and editing were the curses of letter-writing, thirst for validation hinders internet correspondence. Abrupt impressions and immediate response, or the pressure to respond immediately, enable our knee-jerk instincts more than our deliberate thoughts; language is reduced to spasmodic gestures. Goldberg cites “novelists missing quotation marks” like Sally Rooney and Rachel Cusk as the best possible articulation of this style. But the better example is found in film, which has taken to using (rather annoying) graphic displays of text exchanges between characters as they struggle to find the most optimal phrasing to forward their own stories and, whether implicitly or not, to gain social advantage.

Worse still, DM-sliding is deprived of many of the graces and delicacies of even the most concise of notes. Decorum and propriety are virtual nonentities, particularly among the powerful. It gives Chrissy Teigen sufficient justification to tell someone directly to kill themselves. While a progressively minded entrepreneur can (allegedly) sate his often unwanted sexual appetites many times over. If online correspondence is less formal and more engaging, it is also less inhibited and more invasive.

I know much of this comes from my own biases. I don’t write many letters these days, though that probably makes the joy of getting the opportunity to do so all the greater. Whereas online correspondence for me can be very glib and passive, like watching My Dinner with Andre, pausing it at random intervals, and picking it back up days later, letter-writing is a focused practice. Nothing fires the synapses like sitting down before some loose-leaf, pouring out your thoughts, then arranging what is most pertinent, or what is most amusing, for one person, whether stemming from a specific occasion or no occasion whatsoever. It is uncommon to receive a DM in quite the same way; whether relaying a random story or observation or just asking how you are. Online communication at its best is purpose-driven and linear at its core; a patchwork of unending Beckettian dialogue stitched together with recondite in-jokes and canceled plans. (That much is clear when whole text logs are booked as evidence.) The collective spontaneity we feel being in each other’s DMs will, after the collapse of a civilization or two, appear encyclopedic.

Writing a letter, I am aware that the finished product will be a personalized set piece and not part of a conversation or a thread as we understand them today. But that only adds to the open-endedness and freedom of the experience. I may not get a response, or may get a response with contents entirely unrelated to what I wrote. One recipient may get one voice; another, a different one; and I will get any number of voices in turn. I see nothing wrong with that so long as we can fit each voice to the proper occasion. In the end it’s better to have several voices at your disposal than be absorbed into one indistinct yawn.

Unlike the payphone and the printed map, written correspondence has not lost its social currency. The challenge is whether the society itself is up to its standards. Does it have the necessary patience, discipline, linguistic verve, and sharpness of mind? Does it have the economic grasp of knowing what to say and how to say it? When to play up and when to play down? Can it master the precarious balance of discretion and (especially for you Joyceans out there) candor? Does it see its members as equal confidants rather than receptors of raw impulse? It seems only under severe restriction that any of this is possible. I have it on good authority (my middle school guidance counselor mom) that students without phones on school grounds must subsist on the strictures of written notes and the imperfect system of their desk-to-desk transmission. The compulsive tweeting of the online “dissident” risks almost nothing in comparison to a simple request of “Do you like me? ▢Yes ▢No ▢Maybe”.

If that seems too daunting, you should try it for yourself. I can confidently assume that there is at least one person in your life to whom you would like to send a well-crafted, but by no means perfect, longhand letter, whether an amusing missive, a moral instruction, an earth-scorching memo, a “Dear Loser” letter, or just a thank-you note. Anything goes when it comes to maintaining your singular voice(s). In time, you find yourself like Jonathan Swift, writing to his companion/possible wife Esther Johnson in his most personal work, the bewilderingly coded Journal to Stella: “I think I am bewitched to write so much in a morning to you. … I will come again to-night in a fine clean sheet of paper.”