10:23:11 Dead Letter, E-mail Fatigue

New technology changes how we interact. For me, it's people stopped writing letters. In a few decades, the art of correspondence, a practice of educated society for literally thousands of years, seems to have washed away with cheap or free long-distance phone calls, texting, email, IM, and the like.

One quick personal example suggests how much, collectively, we've subtracted from correspondence. I've corresponded for the better part of twenty years with another writer. An author who years ago kept up a fair list of correspondents, many inveterate book readers might recognize. I mentioned a few months ago these are not times for letter writing. He replied with regret his correspondents, me included, were down to three. One, he's sure, doesn't have a computer!

[journal]The writing of old-fashioned correspondence has durability. As I write this, I am looking at a diary kept by my great-grandfather in 1868. Written in pencil, it's as fresh as if written months ago. Contrast this low-tech attribute with email stored on the electronic media of a hard drive. Who pays to recover that when the drive crashes?

But in our speeded-up, always-connected world, the real loss is something more basic. In William Powers' meditation on obsessive connectivity, Hamlet's Blackberry (2010), he argues for a pause to reflect between message and response. Once upon a time, we received a letter and took time to ponder its content and the writer's words. Then we responded.

I suspect people still want that "pause to reflect and reply" author Powers describes. Why else has the phenomenon of email fatigue and unanswered missives set in?

When email first arrived on the scene, ten+ years ago for most of us, it often read like letters, often more than a screenful. The subject line could be a throwaway (like Hi!). But now with daily inundation of one's INBOX, the subject line is everything. Nobody wades through every email. The most useful key is DELETE.

So dead letter, email fatigue. People retreat from considered email exchanges and instead deploy broadcast strategies, as in the endless Christmas letter that is Facebook.

Or go for texting. No surprise, if one doesn't have unlimited texting, the cost of an "over-the-limit" short digital burst is 20 cents each. So one text exchange costs about the same as first-class postage for a one-ounce letter, anywhere in the United States, Alaska and Hawaii included.

Ironic, isn't it? Someone still makes easy money, even if our communication seems poorer for it.

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The Cat at Light's End

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