Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The email of the species

with 2 comments

Colin Powell

It has often been said that you should never put anything into an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Sony learned this the hard way, as has Colin Powell, and the latest round of leaks has people in government, entertainment, and other fields scrambling to rethink their relationship with the send button. But you should also never put anything into an email that you wouldn’t want read by your biographer, or, more realistically, by your kids. It feels as if email has been around forever, but it’s a recent enough development that we haven’t seen many biographies using it extensively as a primary source. Still, it’s only a matter of time. There are obvious challenges involved in preserving and accessing correspondence in digital form, but as long as it exists, determined scholars will figure out a way to get at it. A biographer will do anything to get at a trove of personal correspondence—believe me, I know. The hacker and the biographer differ mostly in the means that they’re willing to use to get at what they want, rather than in their underlying reasoning: they just draw the line at different places. Motivated researchers won’t stop at the obvious, and they can mine the available material in unbelievable ways. Which just means that we need to get used to the idea that anything that we type is likely to end up in the public record, or, at the very least, in the hands of a curious stranger.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between physical letters and emails, as well as about the kind of information that they yield about their senders and recipients. The four primary subjects of Astounding are some of the most prolific correspondents imaginable, and this isn’t a coincidence: I don’t think I would have even contemplated tackling this project if I hadn’t known in advance that there was a vast amount of archival material available. When I read their letters, some of which run to a dozen pages or more, I’m often amazed by the amount of time and effort that they put into each one. When you think about the inherent challenges of the medium, compared to how we send messages today, it can seem incredible. An actual piece of paper had to be rolled into a manual typewriter—along with a second sheet to make a carbon, which is how so many of these letters were preserved—and composed by hand, with limited ability to edit or correct mistakes. Even if you account for the power of habit, and the fact that we’ve simply lost many of those skills, there’s no denying that writing a letter was a messier, more laborious, and lengthier process then than it is now. After it was finished, it still had to be slid into an envelope, addressed, stamped, and mailed. Days or weeks would go by between each side of a conversation. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine how anybody got anything said at all.

Postcard from Isaac Asimov

But when you look at it more closely, you realize that it was exactly those conditions that made it possible for good letters to be written. A letter was an event in itself, and the inconvenience that the materials imposed made the writer more likely to take the result seriously. (To put it another way, the time and effort expended in setting up the typewriter, addressing the envelope, and mailing the letter were fixed costs, independent of the content of the letter itself. If you were going to go through the trouble of writing somebody at all, you might as well make it worth your while.) The necessary length of time that elapsed between a message and its response encouraged you to cover multiple subjects and cover as much ground as you could. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t write a quick, casual note as well: most of the letters in the John W. Campbell archives are only a page long, and many are just a couple of sentences. But if we have so many fascinating letters from that era, it isn’t despite the cumbersomeness of the medium, but because of it. It reminds me a little of what I’ve written in the past about Blinn’s Law, which says that as technology advances, rendering time—which in this case means the amount of time spent writing and revising a letter—remains constant. When it comes to email, however, the ability to easily revise hasn’t resulted in longer, more polished messages, but a greater number of casual communications. Individual letters may not stand out as much, but the overall volume of wordage is about the same.

And although we might mourn the loss of the long personal letter, which I’ve pretty much ceased to write myself, biographers might actually benefit from the change. When you’re sending a typed or handwritten letter, the analog format gives you time to consider what you’re writing, or to have second thoughts about a message before sending it. (Campbell’s archives include several important letters that were written but never sent.) An email allows us to be more impulsive, which is why the victims of leaks invariably come off so badly. Email doesn’t discourage introspective writing, exactly, but it certainly doesn’t encourage it—while it definitely encourages us to shoot out a hasty line at a moment’s notice. It’s more like a private conversation than a conventional correspondence, and reading it feels closer to eavesdropping than to opening somebody’s mail. Biographies of the future, which draw on email instead of letters, may even differ in tone from the ones being written today: they’ll be assembled from countless small glimpses of spontaneous moments, rather than from the deep dives into the writer’s head that letters once afforded. The result may well be more accurate as a result: an email sidesteps the author’s internal censor, reflecting who the sender really was, rather than how he or she wanted to appear. That will probably always be true, even as public figures become more cautious. Colin Powell can’t be happy about the leak. But his biographers certainly will be.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2016 at 9:07 am

2 Responses

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  1. Someone whose opinion I very much respect once said that the advent of electronic means of communication had adversely affected the quality of all writing; I believe he subscribed to the view that the more time taken to write something, the better it would become (or, at least, the more effort put into it).

    He is particularly scathing about blogs and social media, and I can see why: much of what is written is completely off the cuff, often unconsidered and ill thought-out, with little consideration given to tone and worthy content. He also believes that this loss of quality has spilt over into literature, and that much of what is published had become sub-standard because it is written using electronic rather than physical means.

    I would agree with him up to a point. Many blogs have hastily-written, barely comprehensible content, but others have plenty worth reading (yours included), although I suspect these are the blogs whose authors have expended the appropriate effort, and taken the appropriate time, in ensuring the writing is of the appropriate standard.

    It makes me wonder about the media we use to compose our messages, as opposed to the media used to disseminate them. Hand-writing, or writing using an old ribbon typewriter, as a matter of style, or in the belief that it will somehow imbue one’s writing with gravitas, is clearly wrong; but perhaps there is a strong case for returning to more labour-intensive methods in order to force an investment of time, and thus effort?

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking article (I refuse to call your contributions ‘posts’). All the best with the research.

    Matt Wainwright

    September 16, 2016 at 9:50 am

  2. @Matt Wainwright: Thanks for the kind words! I’ve always been a proponent of the use of media like ink on paper as part of the creative process, and I need to make sure to take my own advice as I continue with my work.


    October 4, 2016 at 9:17 pm

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