18 Dec What I Have to Say to Mr. Nader
Recently, I’ve received a letter from Ralph Nader. He wants to know my thoughts on technology because, years ago, he read an essay I published in Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club (Pushcart Press, 1996). In this anthology, I and a number of other writers pondered the then-nascent technological revolution. When I consider how early 1996 was, just 7 years after the introduction of the internet and still most Americans didn’t know what to make of it, I am surprised that I had anything at all to say about it.
Let me be clear: I am no Luddite. I am thoroughly immersed in, and in significant ways, thoroughly enamored of technology. But in 1996 I had reservations, a few of which I still have. The biggest of these centers on the way email and other forms of digital communication encourage spontaneity and immediacy at the expense of reflection and re-consideration. My worry was that letter-writing was dying.
I had long been an avid letter-writer and, in 1996, was still so, sustaining correspondence with a number of long-distance friends. But, the truth was that, irrespective of email, letter-writing was all but dead by that time.
Letter-writing was most important in my formation as a writer because it allowed me to think through problems, events, and emotions as no other communication could. Email, I argued, short-circuited this formation because email is all about brevity in the service of transmitting “information.” You don’t write emails to ponder a problem or explore a hypothesis.
So, in the age of email, it was no surprise when Facebook, then Twitter and others, imposed character limits on their users’ communications. Arguably, eloquence can be found in the most aphoristic or these offerings. Nonetheless, only the smallest fish can swim in such shallow waters: there’s no room for the kind of big fish of thought we may find in letters, much less essays.
Following the get-it-fast, get-it-now model of digital communication, it’s no coincidence that, in the last twenty years, we’ve seen the rise of highly abbreviated literature known as “flash” fiction and nonfiction — stories and essays as small as 50 words. There may be an art to getting a lot into so small a space but, at the same time, the effort gives me pause, for it seems to announce a new age in which even the best writing demands the least time from its readers. We’re all so busy now, aren’t we?
Studies have shown that children are writing more now than they were writing a decade ago, thanks to texting and the like. Many educators wonder, though, if the writing is worth anybody’s while, since it’s so rudimentary. I am among those who believe that some writing — any writing — is better than none. Still, that’s small consolation.
In 1996, I did not have an email account. I resisted getting one until 1998, not because I mistrusted it so much as I resented the added obligation of having to manage yet another form of communication. Wasn’t phone mail bothersome enough? But soon, too, I’d get a cell phone.
Now that my world is thoroughly digitized, I enjoy the convenience on the one hand but, on the other, resent the time-sucking black hole that defines life in the digital age. Nowadays, if you want to stay connected, you must pay and pay again with your precious time. Those of us over 40 can’t help but sigh when we consider how simple life was in the pre-internet age, when we didn’t have to “update” our status nearly every day with our photos, posts, and likes/dislikes in order to stay current with our friends.
The saddest fact of digital communication is that we are all getting what appears to be a free ride when, in actuality, it is a costly one whose ultimate end may be most regrettable. I’m referring to the mining of personal information by the various hosts we use. “Host” is an ironic term in this case because we users are actually the hosts and the hosts — whether Amazon or Face Book or Google — are the parasites, greedily gathering the many points of our personal data to lock in our marketing profiles, right down to our favorite color, soft drink, and sexual preference.
At a glance, it seems innocuous enough (we want to keep the economy going, don’t we?) but closer inspection reveals some disturbing trends about life in the digital age: what we’re giving away, we can’t get back. Consider all of those parents who are blithely recording their children’s lives on the internet, without their children’s consent — thousands of photos and postings that document a child’s maturation over the course of eighteen years, that give away a child’s personal life, a life that not so long ago was each of ours to share or not with friends and loved ones.
The question of sharing is now moot. Increasingly, everyone’s life is spilled across multiple public platforms like the strewn innards of a split piñata. As a result, the notion of privacy is changing and, with it, our understanding of intimacy and self-respect. I’m not smart enough to tell you how this will end, but I’m certain it’s worth worrying about. I’m certain these rapid changes will affect us as profoundly as our rapidly changing climate and yet there remain too many people who say, “Relax, it will all turn out fine in the end,” as if the end were more predictable than the weather.