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Expression in the Information Age

In a world where we are constantly chatting, very little is actually being said. We email -- but are we really in touch?
 
 
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Thanks to the Internet, I have over the years managed to get back in touch with many long-lost friends. But one of them recently sent me an e-mail complaining that, now that we are communicating on a regular basis, she actually misses me more, not less.

Astounded by the seemingly paradoxical statement I immediately hit reply: "L. what on earth do you mean?"

Within half-an-hour or so, her e-mail came back with a strangely familiar passage in quotation marks.

"Late last night the rain fell. It dripped and dropped against my windowsills announcing the departure of a lethargic winter. Yet L. I must confess, I didn't mind the winter nights. What I fear is the warmth of summer. When my skin turns bronze and my body is ripened for love, when that afternoon sun lingers a bit too long on my shoulders, oh L. I get in trouble."

Only when I got to the end did it dawn on me that it was my own writing. I wrote this passage to L. more than a decade ago in a handwritten letter, something I regret to report that I rarely do these days.

L. concluded: "See what I mean? Where is the writer of this letter now? We e-mail, but are we really in touch?"

Hers is a fair accusation, though she, too, has stopped writing such expressive letters. Since we communicate by e-mail, we say things that are neither deep nor profound.

We are communicating again after some silent years, but L. and I communicate badly. Our electronic correspondence stays on this shallower side of the lake, and our prose, if such it can be called, is only a bit wittier than the yellow pages of the phone book.

"How's it going?" I would ask in one message. "Bye."

"Went to see Stomp last night," L would answer in another.

"Fantastic. But my kid's crying though. Got to go. Love."

My suspicion is that in a world where we are constantly chatting, very little is actually being said. We substitute human emotions with those strange symbols :-) and :-(, hoping somehow these colons and exclamation points could substitute our sensibility and taste and convey the nuances of our lives.

The US Department of Education recently supported my suspicion. Last October, it found that only one in four students in high school, both public and private, could write "at a level of proficiency necessary for future job success."

The survey also found that while students are often capable of "social chit chat," language for the purpose of narration or argument is beyond them. Nine out of 10 of these students are native-born speakers of English.

It is worse, actually, with people who speak English as a second language. Robert Woo, who hails from Hong Kong, says that he can't write in Chinese anymore.

"I e-mail all my family and friends in Hongkong in English but I haven't written anything in Chinese in almost a decade. My parents used to get these expressive letters from me when I was in college, but they can read in English, via the Internet."

He doubts that he can write in Chinese anymore. "Not enough time," he said, shrugging, "not enough incentive. Besides, there's always the phone."

So with speed and easy access, the first few casualties may be depth and style. But I fear the last might be literacy itself. "She was, like, you know, so mad ... " or so the housewife on a talk show began this morning, "and like I don't know why".

Neither did I, to be honest, but her incoherence made me wonder what happened to language and ideas in a country where people are less self reflective and yet, at the same time, as if cursed by Andy Warhol, more expressive.

To live in the information age is, in a way, to live in a modern day Tower of Babel. One is constantly communicating -- with cell phones, e-mails, pagers and in chat rooms -- but one may very well be out of touch. One gets on the "right" side of the digital divide but one might have to pay a price: Language is streamlined, and intimacy is forsaken for the high valued currency called information.

Soon, I fear the thick novels of Tolstoy and Melville and the like will fall by the wayside as Americans and the rest of the wired world fail to understand or, for that matter, to create language that is complex and substantial.

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor of Renaissance literature, foresaw the decline of all that he loved and knew -- the age of literacy.

He predicted, instead, the rise of new oral/aural technologies. People chatting while driving, reading their e-mails at the coffee shop, but don't pause long enough to reflect. Indeed, these days I find the only people who write good letters are the old or those living in refugee camps or soldiers writing from the war front. The dispossessed refugee, robbed of his home, his future uncertain, becomes a consummate writer. He picks up his pen and begins to bleed himself into words. And the soldier, too, who lives intimately with the knowledge of his own mortality, and who longs for the insularities of the world he left behind, finds his voice true and clear.

For the rest of us in this age of mobility and information, there simply isn't any time for such a thing as a long, flowing, hand-written letter.

Odd, isn't it, in a world where one does not need fire to boil water or a teller to withdraw cash, there isn't any time left to complete a whole paragraph?

I am, alas, no exception. The impulse to write a handwritten letter has long left me. I am not unaware of the irony: Me, a writer and journalist who makes a living out of writing on the pages of various newspapers, finding it harder and harder to write a letter the old-fashioned way.

Like everyone else, I am a hopeless e-mail addict who has been seduced by its split-second convenience, and only on special occasions do I dust off the writing pad and fountain pen to jot down thoughts and emotions and write something close to what you would call a narration.

L., as if to chastise me, sent yet another passage from my past: "A curtain of fog fell on the Merced lake today. Everything is obscure outside my window but I can hear the sea beyond the dunes and see a few joggers appearing in and out of the fog. Then I hear a seagull let out a piercing cry somewhere overhead, lost perhaps from its flock, and L., he might as well be singing my song."

But I had already got the point and the cry of the seagull does strike its chord once more.

Reading the passage I was overwhelmed by the desire to possess those letters I had sent away so freely a decade or so ago.

Or rather, I longed to know him again, the lonely writer of those letters who never heard of such things as e-mails or the Internet and who lived in an age not so long ago, but that might as well belong to another era.

It is one where the mailman still played the troubadour of sorts for star-crossed lovers, and not what he is now: The carrier of bills and junk mail.

So. Dear L.:

I miss you, too, dearly. Especially this foggy morning walking again at our beach, I smelled that salty odor of the sea with its hint of dry kelp and dead fish wafting in the cold air and feel the caressing fingers of winter.

I'm sorry I don't write letters anymore, sorry that I've lost the impulse. I am wracking my brain to think of how I can make it up to you.

An ad in the paper to say I miss you, perhaps, or a billboard over the exit to your house. Or, maybe, just maybe, an editorial.

Andrew Lam ( lam@pacificnews.org), an editor at Pacific News Service, is a journalist and short story writer.