The value of writing letters in a digital society
Social media, texting and emailing have revolutionised the way we communicate. These technologies have enabled us to be more efficient and stay in touch more easily. But they have also altered the dynamics of some of our most important relationships. Within this new digital revolution, have we lost something?
We are becoming lonelier by the gigabyte. Apps connect us before we can actually meet. Google completes our sentences. We go on Facebook while we are in a meeting. We text while there is a person sitting in front of us. The more "connected" we are, the less we get to know one another. Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, says that we are ending up hiding from one another. We forget—in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts—to listen to one another. But it is often in unedited, dull moments, moments in which we falter and stutter and occasionally go silent, that we reveal our true selves to one another.
We have sacrificed real communication for mere connection. We have chosen the quantity of relationships rather than the quality of relationships. We have embraced a new "reality" that accepts the simulation of compassion as sufficient. Does the bear-hug on Skype or the sad face on text carry the same appeal as the well-written condolence letter? The role of writing letters has become an almost extinct practice in our lives. The envelope in the mail is just another bill.
People used to write letters. They used to write their letters by hand. We were able to see the writer's redactions and second thoughts. We were privy to his or her flaws, celebrations and conflicts. A letter from our parents or friends was a familiar voice in a foreign country, a favourite song replayed in a new city. In a letter, we tended to one another with all our messiness. Now we clean all that up with technology. When we text, Facebook or WhatsApp, we present a simulated version of ourselves. We edit and delete. We unfriend with a click. Over time we stop caring.
Letters are among the most significant memorials one can leave behind. In a series of letters written between 1930 and 1933, from Her Majesty's prisons, Jawaharlal Nehru depicted a panoramic view of the history of mankind. These letters he addressed to his young daughter Indira, hoping to introduce her to world history seen from a non-Eurocentric angle. It all started with a birthday note. He could not afford to send a material gift from prison. So he gave her something from his heart. Later, they were published as a book named Glimpses of World History. The New York Times described it as "one of the most remarkable books ever written."
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, a collection of 255 letters written over his 27 years in prison, provides us with a new lens to view his personal and political growth. They help explain how Mandela survived his gruelling incarceration with courage and integrity intact. From the day he was arrested in 1962, he took pen to pad and in cramped cursive wrote heart-rending missives to his wife, five children and later several grandchildren, rebellious letters to authorities, anguished condolences to families of fallen comrades, and even a pensive letter about amasi, a traditional kind of fermented milk that he missed. Underlying them all was his unyielding optimism in the inevitability and righteousness of his cause—the end of white supremacy and democratic self-rule for the black majority. Not once did he express self-pity or regret about his suffering. "For 13 years I have slept naked on a cement floor that becomes damp and cold during the rainy season," Mandela noted in a 1976 letter requesting pajamas routinely given to white prisoners.
In 1927, the 10-year-old John F Kennedy became a boy scout. His weekly allowance of 40 cents was not enough to cover the costs of basic survival gear. So he asked his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr, for a raise of 30 cents. Keen to teach his son a quick lesson in monetary matters, Kennedy Sr, a noted businessman and politician, immediately told him that unless his request was in writing, it would not be heard. So the future president wrote his father a letter requesting a raise which he gave the title "A plea for a raise." I remember being taught how to write such letters in school. At that time, I thought it was just silly. But later I saw that even rich kids in the States are taught to sell lemonade or wash neighbours' cars to earn extra cash during the summer vacation. The lesson is that one has to actually work for his money.
We don't have to pore over the letters of personages like Mandela and Kennedy for the insights letters offer into our lives. Letter-writing is among our most human acts. Sending a letter at a time of loss is a sign of civility that binds us together. Social media have their places, in commerce, romance, and politics. But they can never substitute for something like a letter. Because handwriting opens a window into the soul that cyber communication can never do. Remember pen friendship?
So, write a letter. Surprise a friend. Send a message—a message crafted by hand rather than bits of binary code. A letter that carries emotions rather than emoticons. Tell a story. And maybe, in that process, if not storytellers, we become human again.
Amitava Kar is a mechanical engineer.
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