Listen To This Story
As the clockwork of progress ever ticktocks forward, I fear the sunsetting of email.
I’m not good with technical change. A century and a half ago, when featherless pens first came in, I would have been the one stubbornly holding on to his quill.
When the early box-like computers arrived, I steadfastly stuck to my noisy Selectric typewriter. It was so loud it was like typing on a vacuum cleaner with keys, but it was those initial home computers that really took up the space.
My father bought an early IBM that had something of the air-conditioning unit about it. It cost $5,000 and did spreadsheets. The dot-matrix printer used accordion paper with side sprockets that unfurled its attached pages out of a cardboard box under his desk (kids, are you taking notes for your history class?).
I finally got around to an affordable desktop Amstrad that didn’t even have a hard drive. People are incredulous when I tell them this, as if I were relating an experience with gas lamps. The computer used 5-inch floppy disks that were flimsy and didn’t respond well to spilled beverages.
I couldn’t tell you much more about the machine’s primitive entrails; I wasn’t trying to figure out the national debt, I was just writing. It was a tool for my epistolary obsession.
I’ve been an inveterate letter writer since my mid teens, and also a habitual letter reader. Long drawn to the Collected Letters — of Hemingway, Orwell, Woolf — I’ve always written my own with an eye on future publication.
In my formative years of correspondence, in order to make it easier for my literary executors, I usually had copies made before I folded up the missives, slid them in envelopes and mailed them off.
Not having my own photocopy machine in those early days — they were then the size of Buicks and not usually in private hands — I had to actually stop by a photocopy shop (kids, take out your tablets again) on the way to the mailbox.
That was before I could store copies in my computer, so that ugly Amstrad was a step up, and it was followed by a series of Macintosh laptops, a progression that could be described as the Ascent of Mac.
Apple has always been just about user-friendly enough for me, and it took me a while to go online. Before that, I actually had printed letterhead paper that proudly stated, just beneath my address and phone number, “Off line.”
So when I finally joined the internet, negotiating the complications of this new worldwide entanglement, you can imagine my relief on discovering the friendly offerings of email.
Email allowed me to keep writing letters, because I’ve always steadfastly honored the epistolary form, opening with a salutation and ending with a “cheers” (I got that from a Norman Mailer letter I once read).
And in further defense to my literary estate, I like to keep copies of my emails in a series of Word files.
But I worry that email is dying off, and how long before Word itself is an obsolete app?
A rudimentary search tries to convince me that email is still kicking, claiming that 85 percent of Generation Z actually prefer it to other communication channels.
But another source announces that 72 percent of respondents prefer text/SMS/messaging to other forms of communication.
I’d bet on the pithier app.
I’ve tried texting, but I’m all thumbs. My 13-year-old daughter is astonished by how slow my digits work on a smartphone screen. Kids can tap out messages so quickly their thumbs practically blur.
Watching my fleet-fingered wife fire off texts, I’m humbled by her dexterity. It’s a thing of beauty.
I still balk at the terseness of this fast-blast messaging form, and struggle to emit a readable blurt. But people claim they write entire novels on their phones.
Jen Beagin, one of my favorite contemporary writers, says she wrote her new book, Big Swiss, on her phone’s Notes app. I marvel at the mechanics of her creative process and look forward to reading the result.
Meanwhile, my own expressive comfort zone is diminishing from other angles. Here in the UK they recently killed off all the stamps issued earlier than a month ago — technically canceling 180 years of usable philately (if you had enough pristine Victorian Penny Blacks and cared to use them to pay your already monstrous gas bill). This is because you’ll need the new issue that has a barcode readable by a machine.
We have pages of unused stamps hidden in drawers all over the house, lonely tokens of letters not sent, communication tickets for journeys never taken.
I brought a handful of these stamps — the ones I happened to find in my desk — to the post office the other day to exchange them for the new, improved, robot-readable kind, but the clerk sighed and told me it was too late. I’d have to send them to some central office somewhere, and they’d swap them for the new generation.
Maybe, while I’m at it, I should write them a letter expressing my Weltschmerz for a changing world. Because I already can’t look at stamps without a pang of regret, a feeling of guilt for all the letters, postcards, and thank-you notes promised in my interior ledger but never actually posted.
But this is only a technical failing; I still write letters, I just send them by electronic mail, bypassing the troubled, underfunded, and derisively labeled “snail mail” that involves the physical post office.
(The post office is another institution I feel sorry for, observing that, like churches, they only seem to get busy at Christmas.)
Electronic mail perhaps only extended the life of the epistolary form indefinitely. Will the writing of letters survive the death of the app?
Nothing seems to remain in circulation long. The coins and banknotes I once used to buy those now obsolete stamps are themselves no longer legal currency, because the UK retired the old pound coins in favor of new, ingot-centered versions that are apparently more difficult to counterfeit.
(Why anyone would bother counterfeiting a coin worth something along the lines of a dollar and a quarter is beyond me, but I’m not in that particular field, so it could be that criminals understand an aspect of the economy that eludes me.)
The banknotes were all replaced by smaller, plastic versions that can go through the wash, which is an improvement for those of us prone to accidentally laundering our money.
I keep finding archaic coins in those same drawers that hide my outdated stamps, and recently discovered an old 10-pound note that missed the bank-exchange deadline, so now lies on my desk decoratively, the most expensive bookmark at my disposal.
Stamps, coins, banknotes — and soon email? Compose a requiem for the disappearing world of self-expression and personal delivery as it trundles mournfully to its close.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.