A conversation with visiting friends last week began with reminiscences concerning letters written by ancestors a century or more ago.
The things those letters had in common are striking, and significant. First, and least important, perhaps, is the fact the letters were written in a more-than-worthy hand. In some cases, the handwriting was beautiful.
Second, the letters were long; they were well-composed (the narrative often riveting) and the grasp of the fundamentals of written English by the writers was obvious. In some cases, the writing was of high quality; in all cases, it was more than merely readable.
How often do we encounter such things today? The letter is largely a thing of the past and, unfortunately, so is the ability to write a sustained piece, and to write it well. As for penmanship?
What we have now is e-mail and a variety of ever-shorter text messages and tweets. If one needs evidence of a plague that is eroding our ability to communicate with the written word, all one has to do is connect to Facebook. There, what is found most often is abbreviated drivel, self-absorbed and inflated trivia, and memes intended to stand in for a personality or a political, religious and/or ethical set of beliefs.
Perhaps this is inevitable, given the advent of information technologies and their widespread use.
What a shame, too, the other things that are lost. Also quickly dying are the ability to engage in conversation and reconnoiter a deep relational field … and civility.
Have you been to dinner with someone who keeps their cell phone on, who answers each and every call or text, engaging in what is most often an utterly superficial exchange? Have you had someone drift away to the digital realm where he or she apparently finds something or someone else more interesting than you? Have you had inane cell phone conversations forced on you in public places? This type of rude behavior has become common.
Have you observed a classroom in which students are allowed to have cell phones? Any guess how much attention is paid to the instruction, how much discipline is imposed?
The new information environment provides us many more connections, but contacts are frequently paper-thin and the worldviews exposed are often xenophobic, racist, violent, misogynistic. There are more “relationships” to be had, and many more of them are superficial. While the digital information environment allows for numerous connections, is also provides a platform for disconnection of the most profound kind, flattening the relational space in terms of its quality, rather than expanding it.
In this new world, we can find everything we want to know, and little of what we need to know. It encourages like to discover like. The opportunity for conversations that challenge us —those requiring eye contact, analysis of body language, a rapid give and take of ideas— are replaced with memes and ego-driven utterances masquerading as dialogue.
True, conventions and the skills necessary to make one’s way in a particular environment at a particular time vary and, as the environment changes, so must the ways in which we navigate and interact with one another. Written communication, after all, has been indulged by more than an elite group for a relatively short time and the ability to sustain a narrative and to do so skillfully was acquired by a substantial number of people only recently. Now, the skill might have seen its day. We say goodbye to it reluctantly, and we deeply regret what seems to be lost with it as new ways of “connecting” take its place.