Over the weekend, my dearest friend and I celebrated the silly holiday by attending a performance at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. The performance was a staged reading called “Unfeigned Love: The Letters of John and Abigail Adams” and it was, essentially, everything you might think from that title. Some very apt performers played the parts of John and Abigail and, with the help of a narrator, led the audience through a tour of this great couple’s love via the contents of their letters.
The performance was well done and enjoyable, but I took great issue with something the
narrator said in a nearly-offhand moment of his tale. At one moment, the narrator chose to ask his audience what their legacy would be; when had they last put pen to paper? When had they last spent time crafting a letter rather than composing via keys and screen? “Real” letters, his rhetoric ran, were much more lasting than the fleeting updates one places on the internet and digital technologies cannot be trusted for information permanency.
This fallacy is one which I combat on a daily basis. Distrust of technology is notorious and rampant; people seem to think that things put on the internet simply fizzle into thin air. Because these things are not tangible, they are not permanent. The paper letter is superior in form and longevity.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong mister narrator. Just…. So very wrong.
Let me put it to you this way: how often do we warn our children against the dangers of putting things on the world wide web where they can be found? How often do we caution the eager youth against rampant facebook posting for fear that it may be brought to bear against them at some point later in their career? (say… when looking for a job…?) Information put online, I would argue, is more permanent and more public than any single piece of paper knowledge crafted since the dawn of the digital age.
So let’s go through these false notions one step at a time: the fallacy would have us believe that digital information is fleeting, impermanent, impersonal, and inferior to something written on a piece of paper. Additionally, digital communications are entirely replacing hand-written correspondence.
Digital media is far from consumable. It is nearly impossible to well and truly wipe a hard drive of all traces of information, and doing so requires special equipment (…rare earth magnets, for instance). Data stored “in the cloud” is actually (generally) stored in physical form at a data center with one (or several) points of redundancy. Public-facing websites are also considered something of public domain; once the information is available, anyone is free to access or archive it (and people do). In essence: to erase every trace of something off the internet, you would have to hunt down every physical copy of whatever it is you are looking to destroy, and utilize an obscure process to clean the multiple machines upon which it is stored (generally in more than one physical location). That doesn’t sound consumable to me.
And how about the notion that gmail auto-archives all of my outward correspondence? I can’t say that about the paper letters I’ve received and sent. The truth is that a hand-written note is much more likely to be lost in the shuffle or otherwise destroyed by the ravages of time than a digital one.
Oh and paper is really easy to destroy. Just ask the good librarians at Alexandria.
As for the impersonal nature of digital media, I will grant you that computer interfaces can often seem cold. Who hasn’t bemoaned the lack of a “sarcasm font” on one occasion or another? But I will say that a healthy digital presence can tell more about a person than almost anything else. Do you want to know who I am? Then read my blog in conjunction with my twitter feed; google my name and you’ll find pictures of me as well as stories about me scattered through cyberspace; you can even find youtube videos of me doing various things if you want to hear my voice. Don’t you think that will get you closer to me than a letter can? The internet allows for a variety of expression that, before the digital age, were all but a dream. So sure, maybe one brief e-mail isn’t as heartfelt as a gushing hand-drawn letter, but you can’t take the letter out of its context.
As for digital correspondence completely replacing the “superior letter”, it will only do so if the individual allows it to. Despite writing a blog, various e-mails, text messages, social media updates, and all kinds of pixilated content in my day-to-day life, I still maintain a long-term pen pal connection to several of my close friends. Additionally, even this week I took the time to write my best beloved a hand-written note, sent by old-fashioned post, in celebration of Hallmark’s Holiday. E-mails don’t kill letter writing; people refusing to write letters kills letter writing.
And, for the record, digital technologies will only make the job of future historians an easier task. Can I please tell you how much simpler it is to search digitized archives than it is to page through stacks of broadsides or (even worse) hand-written letters? It’s a true joy to handle written material, but it is (by no stretch of the word) “easy” and I’m certain that much more gets lost in the cracks.
So on the whole, “Unfeigned Love” was an enjoyable event. I would, however, rather like the historians at Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum to reconsider their stance on digital technologies. There’s no reason to privilege the written word and put down the typed one; especially since social media makes great (free) advertising. Encourage your audience to tweet, facebook, and blog to their friends; not forsake the evil computer for the romance of the fountain pen.