You have probably heard complaints about the corrupting effects of new technologies on human relationships. You may have heard some of them from me in my blog posts lamenting the loss of simpler, slower, more mindful times. But it has recently occurred to me that email and text messaging -- two modes that are becoming increasingly indistinct with the advent of the smartphone and will surely merge into one technology in the future -- are actually a quaint throwback to the good old days of interpersonal communication.
For pretty much all of civilized history until the invention of the telephone in the late 19th century, information was conveyed through words written on paper (or, in more ancient societies, words spoken and then memorized by mentally agile messengers) and conveyed speedily from one party to the other, whether by foot, horse, or chariot. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the whole Western world was in a frenzy of note writing, with communications of the most trivial and most vital natures going back-and-forth all day long among society's upper and middle classes. (If you were rich enough to have at least one servant, you had someone who could deliver messages for you.)
With the rise of the telephone in the 20th century, written communication got relegated to mail. Since mail is slow and relies on the mysterious machinations of the postal system, written correspondence took a backseat to the telephone and became reserved for less urgent and less crucial (although in some cases more poetic) exchanges.
It now dawns on me that in their immediacy, their demand for instant attention, their reliance on the written word, and their uses both prosaic and profound, emails and texts represent a return to the golden age of the urgent missive.
Take, for example, Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, who waits for days for a note from her beloved Willoughby. She accosts the footman:
'Has no letter been left here for me since we went out?'... She was answered in the negative. 'Are you quite sure of it?' she replied. 'Are you certain that no servant, no porter, has left any letter or note?' The man replied that none had. 'How very odd!' said she in a low and disappointed voice.
Is there any difference between Marianne and the many 21st-century girls checking their smartphones every five minutes?
Or take Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's anti-hero from his 1890 novel, who wakes on a groggy morning to his valet holding a pile of letters:
They contained the usual collection of cards, invitations to dinner, tickets for private views, programs of charity concerts, and the like, that are showered on fashionable young men every morning.
What is this pile of letters but 19th-century spam?
And don't forget that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet hinges on a hastily scrawled note that fails to reach Romeo in time. The plot of the play would be utterly unchanged if the Friar had sent a text message and Romeo's phone didn't get service in Mantua. Or if the Friar had left a crucial underscore out of Romeo's email address and it had bounced back. The Friar's messenger, who returns to Verona still holding the note intended for Romeo and reports that he "could not send it -- here it is again," is like the "Mailer Daemon" of the English Renaissance.
Looking at the big picture, it seems suddenly like telephones were a blip -- an interruption -- in a larger history of written communication, which has now resumed its forward march in the form of email and texting. In fact, has anyone else noticed that their phones ring less lately than they did even a year ago? Maybe my social life is just on the wane, but I have a gut feeling that the era of the telephone is already ending and is being quickly subsumed by the era of the digital message, which is simply the message -- the simplest and most timeless form of communication -- reimagined.
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