Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Decline of Letter Writing

It’s not difficult to find news stories lamenting the decline of letter writing. The main culprit almost always seems to be email. Personally, I find this laying of blame a good example of post hoc propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for, “after this because of this.” People notice the decline of letter writing, look around for something that has happened recently to blame it on, and email appears to be a likely scapegoat.

But I look at the things I send and receive most often via email, and they’re not the things I think prior generations put into letters. Jokes. Arrangements to meet for lunch somewhere. Yes, photographs that would have been enclosed in letters get sent via email. But I think the real culprit is the telephone, and in some instances, email is bringing back the art of letter writing, not causing its decline.

Yes, the telephone has been with us since the early 1900s. But long distance phone service was expensive until recently. My mother was recently telling me that the daughter of one of her aunts who lived in El Paso, TX was an early Bell Telephone employee, and was able to call long distance for free…and did, regularly. She also sent my mother a few letters over the years, but I am sure if she couldn’t call long distance for free, she might have sent more. And today many have calling plans allowing unlimited long distance.

Email can be just as easy as picking up the phone, though, and the other person doesn’t have to be on the other end in order to send the message. And email can be saved, either digitally, or printed out. It is true, a lot of people delete all their email. But it is also true that in the past a lot of people disposed of the letters they received. I’ve heard some complain that the handwritten letter has disappeared, but the nail in that coffin was the typewriter, not the computer. Most of the letters I have that were written by my maternal grandmother were typed, and she passed away in 1951. They do have her signature, but that is the only thing handwritten. I am thrilled to have the letters I do, and it doesn’t matter to me that they aren’t handwritten. Actually, I am kind of happy they aren’t because typed letters are easier to read.

In November of 2004 several members of my family had a lengthy email discussion about the results of the election. My email provider – Gmail – allows you to view an entire email thread, and print the whole discussion as one document. And one option is to print it to a PDF file instead of the printer. Which I have done. I’ve had Gmail since June 15 of 2004, and I have never deleted any email I have received from a relative. Not even the “are you available for breakfast on Saturday” emails I’ve gotten. I think I have all of those. (Maybe not all – a quick search suggests I only have 70, and I should have a few more of those.) I have issues 153-298 of Volume 3 of the APG Digest. I know the archives are online, but I haven’t yet seen a reason to delete them. I have 585 emails (6 a week) from wordsmith.org providing me with a word for the day. All 6415 messages I have sent to anyone between June 15th 2004 and now are also still in my sent folder. Not everything is saved as a PDF though – I’m not that insane. And at some point I will probably have to go through and start deleting, but I am only using 20% of my email space, so theoretically I have at least 16 years before that is a problem if my usage remains constant, and if the space available remains constant, and the latter is constantly growing. (Furthermore, before I deleted email from relatives, there is a lot of other email I haven’t deleted that could be deleted first. Perhaps the Word of a Day emails. I do own a dictionary.)

The biggest problem is that your descendants aren’t going to find a stack of your emails in a box in your attic after you die unless you do print them out, or provide instructions on where to find them on your computer. So it's not a bad idea to let your children or a close relative know your passwords.

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