- Who Wrote the Last Letter?
Letters are old school exchange.
The emergence and proliferation of sophisticated communication devices are quietly and decisively bringing to an end a correspondence and literary form that is perhaps as old as writing itself—namely, the letter.
Our new technologically advanced, digitally driven means of formal and informal communication are not only easier to use and quicker to deliver messages than paper and stamp correspondence, but are also a less expensive and potentially more inclusive means of communication.
An email or a text can be sent by mobile device from any location with cellular service—a task that is generally much easier than locating paper and pen, an address and an envelope, and a stamp and a mailbox. Compared to the time it takes to deliver a letter, the millennial forms of digital communication—email, chatrooms, Facebook, texts, Twitter, Snapchat, blogs, and so on—are instantaneous.
Furthermore, even the most time-intensive of the new forms of communication, such as email and blogs, substantially reduce the delay between correspondence and response, which in turn encourages more correspondence.
While startup costs for millennial communication can be expensive, requiring the purchase a computer or mobile device, the costs are less per communiqué over the lifespan of the device than if the same transactions were enacted by snail mail.
It is at the intersections of cost and ecology that new school exchange significantly trumps old school exchange. Imagine the resources required to share the same amount of photos, music, videos, articles, and books via snail mail as opposed to email?
Furthermore, interpersonal communication via the new technology can be much more inclusive. Personal information can be shared easily with multiple people or groups of people, whereas the old technology required much more time and many more resources to achieve the same result.
But unless you actively refuse to take advantage of the new communication technologies—or perhaps live in a cave—none of this is news to you.
Digital communication is the primary form of communication of the new millennium. And while most digital communication can be transferred to paper or be brought into some physical form, who prints out their emails, downloads their MP3 files to CD, or transfers their video files to DVD? Most are content to leave them in electronic purgatory—and have little need or desire to extract them from their digital tomb.
It is in this context that analog correspondence, that is, correspondence like letters that operates outside of the digital universe, is in decline. We are living at a time when the last letter will be—or perhaps already has been—written; a time when it is now possible to ask, “Who wrote the last letter?”
If you think that this is merely speculation or overreaching, ask yourself a couple of questions: First, when was the last time you received a personal letter in the mail—let alone by courier? Second, when was the last time you wrote a letter? Not a business letter such as a letter of recommendation, but a letter to a friend, colleague, or family member—the kind of correspondence commonly found in a volume of the letters of your favorite writer? One perhaps describing your feelings or emotional state? Or maybe your thoughts on literature, politics, or current events?
A few readers may say “recently;” most will have to travel quite far down memory lane for a response.
As an editor, I still find physical letters in my mailbox, albeit infrequently. Most are requests to review a book or publish a piece. A few are complaints; fewer yet are praise. Most are handwritten or typed, though a few word-processed. Some include a self-addressed stamped envelope that is usually folded over two or three times. The stamps are often offbeat in design, and obviously chosen with care by the correspondent. Regardless of their content, though, these letters always feel dated—as though they are the products of a different era, with more in common with telegrams than Tweets.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the telegraph allowed communication between distant locations that was faster than ever before. But...