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 René 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.


2 Responses to “The Lost Art of Letter Writing”

  1. 1 theharbinger January 14, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Hear hear!

    I’ve stifled my desire to post a heart felt tirade against Facebook–actually typed and deleted the comment–in order to offer a more useful critique.

    Biological diversity is essential to the long term sustainability of ecosystems. It provides both productivity and stability. Does it not follow that diversity of thought might be equally important? (Those who have read Dawkins can refer to this as memetic diversity.) Clearly it makes people and communities more interesting, but what if there’s a great deal more at stake? I can’t help but think our survival is somehow tied to our ingenuity as a species–something that is rooted in the breadth of our experiences and approaches.

    On another note, and this deserves a post of its own, we are becoming cyborgs: “organism[s] that [consist of] a self-regulating integration of artificial and natural systems.” Maybe that’s okay–I know a number of technological determinists who delight in the idea.

    Anyway, I can’t help but think–as seems to be the concluding consensus–that we are losing something vital. Institutionalization encourages homogenization, and this is, well, risky business. (Says the postmodernist with a fetish for local determinism.)

    Sorry for the rant. This stuff gets me going.

  2. 2 So Cal Kango Beach Girl January 26, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    As much fun as I have on Facebook and as many people as I’ve re-connected with, it’s nothing like recieveing a true, honest-to-goodness letter. While I am lax in the writing of these little beauties, I admit that I crave them even with my always-full inbox. It’s just not the same.

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