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Vol. 35 No. 16 · 29 August 2013
Diary

In the Day of the Postman

Rebecca Solnit

3195 words

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavours – radio, television, print – and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.

You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words. Going back a little further, movies were seen in movie theatres, and a whole gorgeous ritual went along with seeing them. The subsidiary pleasures – dressing up, standing in line with strangers and friends, the smell of popcorn, holding hands in the dark – still exist, but more and more often movies are seen on smaller and smaller and more private screens. It used to be the case that when you were at a movie, you were 100 per cent there, in the velvety darkness watching lives unfold in flickering light (unless you were making out). But televisions, DVD players, the rest: you were never totally committed to what they showed; you were always cheating on them, chatting and wandering away, fast-forwarding and rewinding, even when commercials didn’t shatter their continuity.

That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my email while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone that’s all you were.

Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages (the first text message was sent in 1992, but phones capable of texting spread later in the 1990s). Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams – the state of the art technology of the 1840s – and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (‘you’re breaking up’ is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.

Good things came about with the new technologies. Many people now have voices without censorship; many of us can get in touch with other ordinary citizens directly, through every new medium, from blogs to tweets to texts to posts on FB and Instagram. In 1989, Tiananmen Square was the fax revolution. Email helped organise the Seattle WTO shutdown in 1999; Facebook was instrumental in the Arab Spring’s initial phase in 2011; Occupy Wall Street was originally a Twitter hashtag. WikiLeaks uploaded Bradley Manning’s leaked data to a place where its subjects could read it, which is said to have played a role in the Arab Spring too. But the old, irreplaceable dance of democracy, which those digital media helped make happen, still took place between bodies in public. Indeed, the vitality of Occupy for its long season seemed in part to come from the rapture of the American young at the unfamiliar emotional and political power of coexisting in public together, body and soul.

I have reconnected via Facebook to old friends who might otherwise never have resurfaced, and followed grassroots politics and movements. And I’ve wasted countless hours on it that I could’ve spent going deeper, with a book, a film, a conversation, or even a walk or a task. Meanwhile the quality of my emails deteriorated; after many years of marvellous correspondences it became hard to find anyone who still wrote anything resembling a letter. Everyone just dashed off notes about practical things, with maybe a little personal stuff in the mix, and you can’t get epistolatory with someone who won’t receive it with enthusiasm, or at least I can’t. A gratuitous clutter of bureaucratic and soliciting emails filled all our inboxes, and wading through that clutter consumed a great deal of everyone’s time.

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd – on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant – in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

Our lives are a constant swirl of information, of emails that can be checked on phones, and phones that are checked in theatres and bedrooms, for texts and news that stream in constantly. There is so much information that our ability to focus on any piece of it is interrupted by other information, so that we bathe in information but hardly absorb or analyse it. Data are interrupted by other data before we’ve thought about the first round, and contemplating three streams of data at once may be a way to think about none of them.

‘When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test,’ the Boston Globe recently reported, ‘the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off. Another study found that students, when left to their own devices, are unable to focus on homework for more than two minutes without turning to web surfing or email. Adults in the workforce can make it to about 11 minutes.’

Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss. I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distractions.

I now feel under-equipped if I walk out of my apartment without my mobile phone, but I used to travel across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that. We were not so monitored, because no one read our letters the way they read our emails to sell us stuff, as Gmail does, or track our communications as the NSA does. We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.

It will not be easy to go back, though I did see a poster recently (on Facebook) that made the case for buying books from independent bookstores in cash. And librarians fought a fierce battle in the Bush era when they refused to hand over our library records; but they are part of the old world. The new one has other priorities, and didn’t put up much fight to protect our information from the NSA (though squealed a little about it afterwards, plus Yahoo did win a lawsuit post-Edward Snowden allowing it to declassify documents that prove it resisted the NSA’s snooping, and two data encryption companies have since folded rather than be corrupted).

A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’

We have all signed up to wear those earpieces, a future form of new media that will chop our consciousnesses into small dice. Google has made real the interruptors that Vonnegut thought of as a fantasy evil for his dystopian 2081. Google thinks that glasses that interrupt you constantly would be awesome, at least for Google, and they are now in development. I tried on a pair that a skinny Asian guy was wearing in the line at the post office (curious that someone with state of the art technology also needs postal services). A tiny screen above my field of vision had clear white type on it. I could have asked it to do something but I didn’t need data at that juncture, and I’m not in the habit of talking to my glasses. Also, the glasses make any wearer look like, yes, a geek. Google may soon be trying to convince you that life without them is impossible.

A year or so ago I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management, and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up, or someone tries to schedule me for a project or a drink, is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

Furthermore, Google glasses probably aren’t going to spring pastel-coloured bubbles on you that say ‘It’s May Day! Overthrow tyranny,’ let alone ‘Don’t let corporations dictate your thoughts,’ or ‘It would be really meaningful to review the personal events of August 1997 in the light of what you know now.’ That between you and me stands a corporation every time we make contact – not just the post office or the phone company, but a titan that shares information with the National Security Administration – is dismaying. But that’s another subject: mine today is time.

I wonder sometimes if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.

Some of the young have taken up gardening and knitting and a host of other things that involve working with their hands, making things from scratch, and often doing things the old way. It is a slow everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting – but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time. (Of course, for a lot of people this impulse has been sublimated by cooking shows: watching the preparation of food that you will never taste by celebrities you will never meet, a fate that makes Tantalus’ seem rich.)

There are also places where human contact and continuity of experience hasn’t been so ruined. I visit New Orleans regularly, where the old leisurely enjoyment of mingling with strangers in the street and public venues – where music is often live and people dance to it, not just listen to it sitting down, where people sit by preference out front and greet strangers with endearments – forms a dramatic contrast with the Bay Area where contact with strangers is likely to be met (at least among the white middle class) with a puzzled and slightly pained expression that seems to say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re even heard, since earphones – they still look to me like some sort of medical equipment, an IV drip for noise – are ubiquitous, so that on college campuses, say, finding someone who can lend you an ear isn’t easy. The young are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it.

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

Perhaps the young will go further and establish rebel camps where they will lead the lives of 1957, if not 1857, when it comes to quality of time and technology. Perhaps. Right now we need to articulate these subtle things, this richer, more expansive quality of time and attention and connection, to hold onto it. Can we? The alternative is grim, with a grimness that would be hard to explain to someone who’s distracted.

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Vol. 35 No. 17 · 12 September 2013

Rebecca Solnit’s yearning ‘for a quality of time we no longer have’ exaggerates the extent to which we ever had it, or at least thought we did (LRB, 29 August). It’s long been common to imagine a time in the fairly recent past when life was more leisurely. George Eliot, in Adam Bede (1859), described ‘Old Leisure’: easy-going, living in the country, and ‘fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall, and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine’. He ‘was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time’. ‘Even idleness,’ Eliot lamented, ‘is eager now – eager for amusement: prone to excursion-trains, art-museums, periodical literature and exciting novels.’ Elizabeth Gaskell celebrated in Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) the lengthy bargaining at the market in Whitby in the 1790s. In those days, she wrote, ‘there was leisure for all this kind of work.’ In the 1860s Frances Power Cobbe, comparing her own generation with that of 1800-30, described ‘that constant sense of being driven – not precisely like “dumb" cattle, but cattle who must read, write and talk more in 24 hours than 24 hours will permit.’ In 1875 W.R. Greg published a much quoted article called ‘Life at High Pressure’. ‘The most salient characteristic of life in this latter portion of the 19th century,’ he wrote, ‘is its SPEED.’ The Victorians were, he went on, living ‘without leisure and without pause – a life of haste – above all a life of excitement, such as haste inevitably involves – a life filled so full … that we have no time to reflect where we have been and whither we intend to go.’

Things didn’t get better. H.H. Snell, reflecting in 1901 on Queen Victoria’s reign, described life at the beginning of the 20th century:

Lines and wires and pipes, in entangling complexity cover the face and subcutaneous tissues of the land, throbbing and pulsating every moment of the day with the conveyance of living people and living speech … Papers, magazines and books pour forth from the heated presses hot with the latest news of an excited and progressive world. No one has time to read his paper through before the next edition treads upon its heels with other matter of importance.

Despite Solnit’s claims, human character doesn’t really seem to have changed at all ‘in or around June 1995’.

Hugh Cunningham
Canterbury

It feels right that Rebecca Solnit’s piece on the loss of reflection and the increasingly fragmented nature of communication should appear in a magazine devoted to lengthy articles. I’m relieved that I am not alone in feeling that the space for concentration and sustained thought is contracting. Like Solnit, I miss the shape my day once had: a morning paper, then work, and a novel to relax with at night. Now my day might begin with an online article embedded with links that almost immediately pull me into several different conversations at once. The rest of the day continues in the same fractured way.

A decline in the quality of my life is a problem for me. But changes in the way we interact with one another are more serious. The argument that new media are not a replacement for older methods of communication and that different platforms appropriate to different contexts create a richer discourse – that Ted talks and tweets can co-exist with academic seminars and long-form journalism – is partly true and partly disingenuous. The reality is that with limited time in our lives and space in our heads, something has to give. ‘Every time I learn something new,’ Homer Simpson says, ‘it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.’ Ten years ago I might have written a paper on this. Today, writing a letter about it, rather than ‘liking’ it, blogging or tweeting, makes me eccentric. And I didn’t get through Solnit’s piece in one sitting – my attention span’s too short.

Moira Dustin
Brighton

Vol. 35 No. 19 · 10 October 2013

I started studying philosophy in 1998, three years after the start of the electronic revolution described by Rebecca Solnit (LRB, 29 August). That revolution hadn’t yet permeated the academic world. I occasionally wrote to friends elsewhere on email, but within the university our main means of communication were little slips of paper left in pigeonholes.

Reading lists were still on pieces of paper, handed out by tutors at the start of term. They listed journal articles by year, volume and page number, and we read them in the library, walking along the shelves to look for the required volume. Mobile phones existed though I didn’t know anyone who owned one. I did own a pager – a free gift acquired when I opened a NatWest student account – which sat bulkily on my belt loop with no real purpose.

By the time I was a graduate student, things had changed. Mobile phones were commonplace and email was the standard means of communication between friends, between students and supervisors, and between the university and its members. And the increasing prominence of philosophy blogging meant academic gossip was no longer confined to conversations after the seminar.

My academic life now is mediated by the screen. I email reading lists to students as PDF attachments. I follow philosophical discussions on Twitter and blogs. I check online systems to see when my papers have been assigned to referees. I used to read philosophy books in quiet places. Now it’s most often on the laptop, punctuated by the flash of messages in the lower corner of the screen. Sometimes reading philosophy wins out; more often, it does not.

Philosophy requires a capacity for sustained attention: for slow reading, slow writing and slow thinking. I worry that the changes documented by Solnit – these changes to my academic habitat – have reduced that capacity for me. Of course procrastination did not begin with the internet, and the impulse to switch to something easier is not a new phenomenon. But Solnit’s plea for slowness reminded me of the importance of John Campbell’s description of philosophy: ‘Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed – to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible.’

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford

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