Revving the Treadmill of Life

A while back, I wrote a post on letters vs. email in which I considered the pleasures of the former and frustrations of the latter in our current high-paced, highly digital environment. Recently, a friend of mine wrote an excellent post on his blog that was in something of a similar vain: “Navigating the Digital / Analog Divide in Life and Work.” It is a thoughtful post, well worth reading.

On the plane home from Los Angeles, I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was reviewing my notes from that book and came across this passage which I highlighted that encapsulated my thoughts in my “Letters vs. Email” post, as well as some of what Ken has to say in his post:

Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly, not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. (Emphasis mine.)

Sapiens, p. 105-6, Kindle edition.

It is this unintentional revving of the treadmill that has me rebalancing my digital/analog activities. The problem with this is that it alters only part of the equation. I may be slowing things down on my end, but things are not slowing down outside my little bubble. While on vacation I sent out some postcards. I received delighted email replies from the recipients on the day they received them.

I think I am sensitive to this change because it has paralleled my career. The first email I ever sent was when I started with my company right out of college. All through college, I wrote letters, and it was only during the summer after graduating that I began communicated with friends through AOL (“you’ve got mail!”) In the quarter century that I’ve been with my company, I’ve seen an every increasing volume of email, where any one email these days holds less valuable content than one from 25 years ago.

Communication outside work has paralleled this. I continued to write letters after graduating from college, but stopped around 2000, when my sole remaining correspondent (my grandfather) became too sick to write anymore. Now, everything is via email, and even that is being supplanted by even faster and more realtime forms of communication like instant messaging, which further reduces the art in communication down to something like the hand signals that soldiers use to communicate with one another in silence.

I’d love to slow down that treadmill, but at this point, it seems out of control and I hardly know where to begin.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

2 replies on “Revving the Treadmill of Life”

  1. Hi JR,

    After reading this, it’s immediately got me thinking about an app I am using. It’s called Slowly, and it mimics, or at least tries to, how letters can travel through the digital medium. Each letter/message is sent after a certain duration related to the location of the sender and the recipient.

    For example, if I am sending a letter to someone in the US from Hong Kong, it would take about a day to arrive on this app. I guess it is exactly this kind of novelty, a slow, heartfelt letter that attracted me in the first place.

    I never got to write a real letter before, because there’s no one to write to, but now I do, and it’s magical.

    Take it easy man,

    NP

  2. Interesting. I started writing email sometime in ’95, but when I was briefly overseas (’96-’97) I was both writing letters (rarely) and emailing. I ended up getting into a much richer conversation with my mother during that period that lasted for years. I’m pretty sure I wrote my last letter in ’97…probably February 1997.

    I started blogging in November ’97 (lost that domain a year later and shifted to a .net that I’ve owned since ’98). It was funny because my family would see my blog. My aunt would write a letter to my mother about what I’d written, and they would discuss it via mail. My mother would occasionally summarize the conversation. I still have those original posts, with the SHTML includes.

    In the states, the letter would typically arrive within three days of being sent. When I lived overseas, it would take a week each way…if I was lucky.

    My oldest lives in Arkansas, and I’m in Tysons. I would argue we email one another infrequently, a dozen times a year. It’s much more like a letter-writing relationship, but when they happen the conversations occur over a couple days instead of weeks.

    I still am very analog at work.

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