January 4, 2007
One of my many hats is college interviewer for my alma mater. Every year I meet with nervous high school students trying to impress. And generally they do with curiosity and enthusiasm and great promise. But one trend I’ve noticed in the last few years amongst the recruits is the tendency to look at the internet as a complete reference to all things. This disturbs me. One unsmiling young man told me he no longer owned a single book. "Everything I need is online. Why be tied down?" he asked unblinking with complete seriousness. A girl looking for a career in politics happily informed me she had never read a physical newspaper. "I read 10 newspapers on the web, why should I get my hands dirty?" Another student, as she was about to leave, asked if I would prefer a thank you note by snail mail or email. "You haven’t hand written many letters have you?" I asked. She blushed and giggled, "Well actually I don’t think I’ve ever written one.... well, maybe except to my grandmother and that was a looong time ago."
I’ve always been one to embrace new technology. Growing up I was invariably the first kid with a computer, with a printer, with a modem etc. I’ve had email in one form or another since the 80’s, but I also appreciate the almost sensual pleasure of hand written letters, of words on paper, of books and bookstores and spending a day walking around without a cellphone unreachable by anyone. While I read plenty of newspapers online, none is a substitute for my morning New York Times. Online we tend to read the articles already of interest. RSS feeds give us an even narrower more filtered view, but with a paper spread out before us, we are much more likely to browse and read about that volcano in Guatemala, or the new species of lizard they just discovered in the Borneo or of an artist we’ve never heard of. What happens when everyone only reads narrowcast filtered stories catered to their specific interests? And what fun is it to read online anyway? Is there a better way for a couple to spend a lazy rainy weekend than with the Sunday paper spread all over the bed, reading side by side over one another’s shoulders?
We are probably the last generation who will have the pleasure of discovering bundles of our parents love letters. I pity the poor children born today. I imagine them in 2045 trying to revive a corrupt CD-R with data written in some abandoned Outlook format or trying to come up with a forgotten password of a long dead email account. Oh wait, I’ve just been informed email is passé, "You still use email?! I only SMS and chat," a sixth grade cousin told me last week, "Email is for old people."
We all take digital snapshots, but how many people back them up? What is the lifetime of a hard drive? Ten years with extreme optimism? Three is more like it. The great danger of the digital world is the very thing that makes it so appealing: in it’s forward speed, in it’s churning volume, we endanger our individual personal history, the documents that tie us to our past and our future... not to mention the tactile pleasure that comes from holding a book or a letter or a photograph. These are things each with their own histories passed from hand to hand. So while will I bite my tongue with my young forward looking interviewees here’s a long loud hurrah to slowness, to books, to newspapers, to letters and journals, to drawings, to photographs stuck in shoeboxes, and to all the physical threads that connect us to one another and perhaps also, over time, to ourselves.