Remember the letter? You would take a pen or a pencil, and paper – paper that you can run between your fingers and cut yourself with if you weren’t careful – and you would carve the words into the page. For me, my fingers would cramp and my wrist would start to ache so I’d have to stop and shake my hands out every few minutes. My handwriting would descend from careful, neat inscription to a scribbly mess, one word bleeding into the next but not quite cursive. It was harder to read than Times New Roman, but it was more personal. My hand had to slide along each inch of the page as I filled spaces with ink or lead, the mechanism of making my thoughts tangible. The smudges, the lines, the mistakes – permanent, as important as the words that remain, they all added something. The reader could see my thoughts unraveling – taking a step down one avenue, reassessing, having a change of heart, backtracking, and proceeding in a different direction. No such insight is afforded with a backspace. (The irony is not lost on me, as I type about how I miss the beauty in all that’s hand-written.)
Sometimes it feels like we have no interest in letters anymore. They’re antiquated, time-consuming, outdated. And we are impatient, impersonal, and too ensnared in the speed of technology to make time for the purity of unadulterated human interaction. It seems we prefer a disconnected communication, having grown uncomfortable with overbearing intrusions into our privacy and our space – weird, obnoxious impositions such as eye contact and the ebb and flow of conversation that is heard rather than typed. We have forgotten the nuances of human emotion and reaction that organically insert themselves into conversation – a smile rather than an “lol,” a tonal change, a warming of the eyes, a squeeze of the hand, an indication of understanding – emotions instead of emojis.
Don’t get me wrong – I utilize, appreciate, succumb to, and benefit from modern day technology as much as the next person of or in proximity to this generation. But I was lucky enough to have a childhood that existed pre-deluge — the avalanche of technology and social media that somehow makes communication faster but more shallow, easier but less appreciated, perpetual but less personal. So I straddle this line – I appreciate and miss what once was, while engaging in what now is. I text about the beauty in a hand-written letter, I tweet about how Twitter, while a great place to get news, has both exposed and exacerbated the worst in people. I tweet about how Twitter perpetuates a culture of accommodation, a deeply festering obsession with validation – and I check to see if it got any retweets or favorites. I gripe over the loss of interpersonal communication; and in the next moment, I find myself irritated that someone returns my text with a call, appalled at their lack of social etiquette.
It seems we’ve grown so comfortable with the comfort of our routine, we often don’t realize how much of a crutch it actually is. I used to print out MapQuest directions, and there was no rerouting, no re-entering information into HopStop, only thinking and maybe gathering bits of information from other humans. I don’t remember when a plan became some ambiguous suggestion of a possibility, instead of a definitive idea, that all parties planned to follow through on.
It’s so easy now to shoot off a quick text a couple hours before meeting someone – “The subway is down,” “I’m so tired,” “raincheck?” – with little to no remorse because the ease and frequency of our communication has fueled a casual attitude toward pretty much everything. There’s nothing at stake. You can send that text and it will reach your friend, who is probably just as tired, lazy, and noncommittal, and is probably relieved to receive it. It’s not a big deal, because you know they won’t be left standing alone at the pre-determined meeting spot, discussed a week prior, agreed upon without the unspoken “if I flake, I flake” undertone. We’re a convenient generation, and so we’ve forgotten the simple satisfaction that can come with making an effort.
We don’t meet up for coffee with potential romantic encounters, we exchange Instagram names and then swap occasional texts and like each other’s pictures for the rest of eternity. And when we cut off someone, when things don’t work out, when it’s time for a splitting of paths, we never really fully detach. We end communication but are still plastered throughout each other’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn timelines. We live in a one foot in, one foot out generation, where everything has a noncommittal feel to it, where our facades are more important than our feelings, where the best way to be cool is to be told so by as many strangers as possible. We end things with people but linger somehow because our online extensions of ourselves are too tangled, and let’s face it, your ex still likes your photos and every like counts.
I’m relieved I am at least aware; I know I’m worse than some, better than some in this regard. But I’m comforted by the fact that this is a conversation I’ve been having more often. It seems there’s a seed of discontent planted; some human reaction to the oddness of how caught up we are in what is ultimately mechanical communication. But I wonder if this is a genuine desire for real human interaction, or just further reflection of our flakiness, our noncommittal nature; we’re not really ready for reform, just a new social media platform. Time will tell.
I don’t think technology and social media is all bad. I do place great value in being able to communicate with my cousins overseas easily via Facebook, in getting news instantly on Twitter, in having some sense of what’s going on in old friends’ lives. But I’m also fearful that the disconnected nature of communication grows aloofness and stifles compassion; those who would never be so bold as to cruelly insult someone face-to-face often will behind the shield of their screen, and this is deeply problematic. People spread embarrassing photos of someone like wildfire, commenting unbearably mean things, comfortably removed from the physical proximity that would force them to see how their actions cause someone’s life to crumble. They’re spared the burden of guilt and regret, and that can be a dangerous thing when people are so easily convinced into cruelty to appear cool. “Cool” – a word that needs some serious redefining in that context.
I find that, ultimately, I’m one foot in, one foot out myself. In using social media and all the technology so easily available, I cannot ever fully resist its pull. But a part of me – a significant part of me – hates it. A part of me realizes how sad it is that we don’t write letters, that we hate meeting face to face, that we care about likes and retweets and favorites, that we can come to depend on them to confirm what we already definitively believe, that we have become so attached to our technological extensions that we’re detached from each other.
I try to wage small wars against it in my own ways in an attempt to hold on to the best of what was. I go to bookstores and smell the books and bend the pages when I read them and watch them get worn with time and use and love, and that reminds me of my adventure with that book in a way fingerprints on a Kindle simply cannot. I write in journals to remember the joy of my hand cramping because I’ve hit on a topic I can barely write about fast enough because my hand can’t keep up with my mind. I relish the excitement and frustration of being confined to myself, of expressing things because they bubble up out of me, the raw thoughts that aren’t tainted by speculations about people’s reactions. I become my own audience, strip the lenses I acquire daily from my eyes, and focus on seeing me as I am.
I’m trying to be more conscious of the casual attitude I almost unknowingly adapted with regard to committing to plans; I tell myself that if I say I’m going to do something, that means I’m going to do it – and there is great value in that. There is great value in giving my word – for me, for those to whom I extend it. Yeah, I still Facebook, Tweet, post photos on Instagram, and text. But I promise myself I’ll never let go of the desire for the really meaningful, deep, substantial connections that only come when connectivity is hard to maintain.