1916 Letters and other reflections

In early February, I took part in the Digitalfountain-pen-cropped Skills for Postgraduates workshop, and as part of this we participated in the Letters of 1916  project run by TCD. I was encouraged by this project simply because these letters are just that – letters! Lovely, handwritten pages of news and greetings and joy, and sadness too. Close your eyes for a minute. Travel back to 1916 where a person (a mother, a son, a soldier) sits at a table somewhere with pen in hand and a carefully selected blank page on which to transcribe their thoughts. If you concentrate really hard, you can breathe in that ‘new-paper’ smell, and with it, the air of tingling possibility that comes before the first word is written. It’s easy to imagine their pausing in the composition of a thought so as to perfectly convey a feeling or an idea, or gazing through the window at the landscape beyond, wishing they could see their loved ones in the flesh.

Isn’t it amazing how time soaks into the pages of a letter in the same way as the ink that forms the words?

In this digital age, receivingpen and paper a handwritten letter is a rare event. Most of us find it so much easier to send an email or a text, and I wonder if this is perhaps because we don’t properly engage anymore with people. Digital communication doesn’t require that we give so much of ourselves away, because we no longer need to think in thesame way when we communicate by text or email. The physical writing of a letter took more effort, it took thinking about, and organizing. We can quite easily answer an email using our phones now, and barely remember afterwards what we’ve written because the process has required so little actual thinking. Something comforting has been lost in this transition from paper to screen, I think, something fundamentally human, and there’s a great sadness in this.

This has led me to think about the very nature of our communications, and how all of our correspondences now seem that much less personal and human and more automated and curt. All of the amazing technology we have access to has served only to reduce our interactions with others to a ‘like’ on Facebook, (or other equally flimsy acknowledgement). It seems easier too, to ‘talk’ online, where we can hide our humanity behind a screen, where we can be anybody we choose. Our responses can be as cold and unfeeling as we please, without fear of recrimination, even our human emotions seem to be diminished, because what we feel needs to fit nicely into one of a handful of emoticons. It all seems terribly ‘flat’ somehow, as if all the colour has been bleached out of our language, as if we are slowly being forced into the neat little boxes technology has provided us with.

old envelope

Call it exaggeration, but it all brings to mind George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, and in particular, a scene where Syme, a work-colleague of Winston Smith, gushes over Newspeak (the official language of Oceania. It was a language devised to meet the ideological needs of English Socialism).

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten”

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