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.