Last week, in Slate Magazine, Vaughn Bell wrote an article titled “Don't Touch That Dial!” Vaughn reminds his readers that anxieties about the effects of emerging technology on cognition are not particular to our own age. Indeed, we’ve been worrying about how new communication technologies affect thinking for a very long time. Even Plato worried about how writing was bad for thinking in the Phaedrus. I cover similar ground in the below post. But my post is at once narrower and broader than Vaughn’s. It’s narrower in that I focus on just a few forms of communication in American history. It’s broader in that I’m grappling not only with feelings of anxiety but other feelings as well. As the humanities strive to find their place in the 21st century academics need to invest time understanding how the fit between our feelings and our technologies have evolved through time. For historians of the emotions this is fertile disciplinary ground!
"We realized a long time ago that what you make people feel is just as important as what you make....." -- BMW Television Advertisement
In reading the past through the concerns of the present, I’m guilty of presentisim, which among historians, at least, is a taboo. Still, even if committing this methodological sin can skew an understanding of the past, it can lend insight into the present. I was especially struck by this after reading David Henkin’s The Postal Age; the Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. Henkin argues that the rise of the postal service allowed feelings of intimacy to be shared across greater distances than they had been prior to the the democratization of letter-writing. While a postal network was already in place by the Jacksonian period, it was primarily used as a means for distributing newspapers; personal correspondence was a secondary concern, and the cost of sending a letter was too high for the service to be used widely for this latter purpose. When rates dropped precipitously in the 1840s the exchange of letters rose dramatically, and in the wake of this, American’s in disparate places began to feel interconnected as never before. Henkin’s text is littered with personal accounts that document this feeling. For example, William Ellery Chaning observed that the postal office
“binds the whole country in a chain of sympathies….It perpetuates friendships between those who are never to meet again…..It binds the family in the new settlement and the half-cleared forest to the cultivated spot from which it emigrated.” Pages 50-51
Do Channing’s comments seem familiar? Today we have similar accounts of how Facebook and Twitter are expanding (or at least reworking) intimacy. For example, in the New York Times article “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” Clive Thompson claims that these new media are expanding so-called “ambient awareness;” the feeling of being near someone through the stream of Facebook posts and tweets found online.
Ben Haley, a 39-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm who lives in Seattle, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year from an early-adopter friend who used it, his first reaction was that it seemed silly. But a few of his friends decided to give it a try, and they urged him to sign up, too… Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes..Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. “It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.”
It’s not hard to come across other articles like Thompson’s. There are plenty of articles that document how new personal communication technologies are shaping feelings and how feelings, in turn, are reshaping these technologies. But Henkin’s history reminds that this reshaping has been going on for a long time. And wrapped up with this history is a complimentary concern about the proper etiquette and protocols to use when communicating through mediated means.
Since the advent of email, texting and twitter we’ve confronted all sorts of authoring challenges that resonate with longstanding epistolary challenges one finds earlier in letter and postcard writing: Should I begin my email with “Hi David,” “David,” or “Dear David?” How crafted and refined do my emails, texts, and tweets need to be? Since these technologies truncate my prose, should I be forgiven if I don’t craft my language as much as I might have in another medium? And just this month, with the advent of Buzz, people are lobbying Google to refine it so as to more closely mimic boundaries that we’ve established between our public and more private selves.
There is no question that we traffic in these questions today. But what is equally, if not more remarkable is that we confronted similar questions a hundred and fifty years ago. For example, Henkin narrates how Americans were not initially in the habit of checking for mail daily. In fact, days or weeks might pass between when a letter arrived at a post office and when it might be picked up by an addressee. As personal correspondence grew in popularity, and as correspondents began to expect quicker delivery and turnaround, the imperative to visit the mailbox or the postoffice more often also became more pressing.
This gradual immersion in a network comes as little surprise to those of us who’ve become more and more absorbed (or at least distracted) by growing streams of email, texts and tweets. But what is equally notable is that our own contemporary worries about how tweets and texts were corrupting writing are in some ways anticipated by the introduction of the postcard:
There was from the start something elegant, not to mention convenient, about cards that bore their own one-cent postage….since postcards supplied a built-in excuse for being brief, they further lowered the threshold for mail exchange (the postcard, as one recent celebrant puts it, “justifies, from the outside, by means of the borders, the indigence of the discourse”). Before 1845 a correspondent assumed a heavy burden in deciding to send a letter. Over the next few decades that burden had lightened, but the cultural construction of the personal letter as a gesture of intimate connection tended to maintain some of the earlier pressures…..if the postcard further democratized the exchange of interpersonal greetings, it fit uneasily into familiar constructions of epistolary intimacy. By emptying the personal letter of its enclosures, the tendency of the postcard was toward the reduction of correspondence to formal gestures. More obviously, postcards exposed themselves to public view….Page 174
Today we fret about whether digital technologies are deepening or shallowing out our relationships with others. But our worries are not completely new ones; they were anticipated by 19th century Americans witnessing the rise of the postal service. Although it’s not a new complaint much of the present discourse about information technology (and especially information technology within the university) suffers from historical amnesia; we often don’t go further back than twenty years in attempting to trace the ever evolving fit between our feelings, our technologies and our protocols or etiquettes. But as Henkin reminds us the connection between our technological present and our technological past is very much continuous:
Despite all the changes that separate us from the postal culture of the mid-nineteenth century, our pervasive expectations of complete contact, of boundless accessibility, actually link us back the cultural moment when ordinary American’s first experienced the mail in similar terms. The world we now inhabit belongs to the extended history of that moment. Page 175
It is perhaps too much to hope for, but as we fashion technology strategies for our university’s future let’s remember that our struggles to find a felicitous fit between our feelings and our technology precede the advent of the digital age.