Archive for January 13th, 2008

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

TOM HODGKINS THINKS FACEBOOK is trying to take over the world – sort of. The Guardian journalist writes today a scathing criticism of the men behind the social networking empire, accusing venture capitalist headman Peter Thiel of an insidious neoconservative agenda and, perhaps more relevant to person on the street, of cheapening the relationships we have with the people we know:

Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries – and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.

Thiel’s philosophical mentor is one RenĂ© Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel’s virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel’s intellectual soirees. What you don’t hear about in Thiel’s philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth.

What underlies this, of course, is the idea that as we increasingly interpret the world through digital media that we are losing something dear. As travelers we know well the value of real experience – but how often are we carrying this lesson with us in other parts of our lives? Especially in the downtime between our journeys, when we are stuck at our desks – wandering only in the world of blogs and imagination – are we in danger of unwittingly losing touch with our physical and personal relationships?

Hodgkins sincerely doubts the quality of friendships kept up by “little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace,” and I’m inclined to agree. In this vein I’m adding another couple resolutions to my list – to get more face time with friends, and to write letters.

However many miles away I may find myself, I want my friends to see my handwriting, to have pictures they can hold, and to get a dash of my personality and thoughts in an envelope. Because what a shame it would be if in this shrinking world we ended up feeling more distant from each other than ever.


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