Yours Truly... Farewell to the letter in the age of @
Ray Tomlinson was the man who gave us email, changing the way the world communicates. But have we lost something very special with the end of pen and paper?
Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30
For Ray Tomlinson, it was just another day at the office. He wasn't even supposed to be working on the computer programme that would - eventually - change the way the world communicates.
Tomlinson, who passed away this week aged 74, had set himself a relatively simple task on that day in 1971. He needed a way to designate the "address" part of a new person-to-person computer communication system known as ARPANET.
The symbol the New York-born programmer picked was "@", as in rtomlinson@arpanet. At that moment, Tomlinson unwittingly became the "father of email".
Today, with billions of people using emails as their primary way of communicating - instantly - with others across the globe, it's easy to take the work of pioneers like Tomlinson for granted.
But it is also striking to note how Tomlinson's little @ - plus the internet - has in less than a generation, killed the art, tradition and significance of the hand-written, stamped and posted personal letter.
Few people under the age of 30 will know the anticipation, the joy (or occasional heartbreak) of opening an envelope and reading the hand-written, personal message inside.
We send and receive hundreds if not thousands of emails every year. Most are lost in the cloud, ephemeral, unreal, disposable.
And, for many of us, the impact of the words contained is lessened by the ease with which they are sent, the sterile nature of the digitised, impersonal pixels that appear and disappear with the click of a window or power-icon.
A hugely popular Twitter account that has grown into a mini-publishing phenomenon is Letters Of Note.
The creation of man-of-letters Shaun Usher, Letters of Note collects and collates an incredible range of letters, postcards, telegrams and memos, from the famous and the not so famous, over a huge time span.
The common theme is the fascination we have with the inner lives of others, as expressed in their own words, often to the people they are closest to in their lives.
Many of the Letters of Note are from celebrities. One very popular one is a hand-written, two-page letter from rock star Iggy Pop to a young French fan who is going through some very tough times as her 21st birthday approaches. In the letter, the famous rock star talks about his dark times, experienced around his own coming of age, and urges the girl to "hang on, my love, and grow big and strong and take your hits and keep going".
Another is from an emancipated slave, writing to his old master in the American south, politely declining his offer to return to the plantation. With dignity, some sharp words and lightly mocking humour, former slave Jourdon Anderson tells his old master that he is fine where he is (thanks) in paid work, caring for his family and happy.
Anderson writes that he is happy to hear his former owner has survived the war: "Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living."
And the now free man expresses his hope that "the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense".
It is an extraordinary letter (printed in newspapers at the time) which resonates down the decades with the humanity and pride of a newly emancipated man. The US researchers who discovered it have since gone back and traced the writer's descendants, who are still living in Ohio.
Some letters paint a very vivid picture. On July 26, 1908, Maude Gonne addressed a letter to her "Willie" from a swelteringly hot Paris.
In it, she wrote to WB Yeats of the restless, heat-bothered night she had just had and how she had lain in bed "after the household had retired at a quarter to 11. And I thought I would go to you astrally".
The poet's great muse wrote: "… I put on this body & thought strongly of you & desired to go to you. We went somewhere in space I don't know where - I was conscious of starlight & of hearing the sea below us.
"You had taken the form I think of a great serpent, but I am not quite sure. I only saw your face distinctly & as I looked into your eyes (as I did the day in Paris you asked me what I was thinking of) & your lips touched mine. We melted into one another till we formed only one being, a being greater than ourselves who felt all & knew all with double intensity - the clock striking 11 broke the spell & as we separated it felt as if life was being drawn away from me through my chest with almost physical pain."
Would Gonne's images of astral communion have had quite the same impact if they were sent digitally to email@example.com , subject line "Howya from Paris - srsly melting here!!"?
Or consider a more famous letter from Irish history, written by Michael Collins to his close friend John O'Kane on the day the Treaty was signed in London.
Collins had gone for a long walk through the night-time streets of London before returning to his lodgings to write some of the most poignant lines from 20th century Irish history.
"Think, what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these past 700 years. Will anyone be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this, I have signed my death warrant."
On paper, cherished by the recipient, these words survive. Sent today by email, they might quickly disappear into the electronic ether.
Irish author Lisa McInerney, long-listed this week for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies), appreciates the value of the written word. But believes it is the message and not the medium that counts.
"I very firmly believe that there is little difference between an email and a letter, if the former is written well," she says.
"I email friends these days the way we used to write letters - to share news, or ask after them, or pass on congratulations or commiserations as the case may be. I think, for my generation especially, there aren't many topics that wouldn't be suited to electronic communication, so long as the words are thoughtful and kind. Posting 'Sorry 4 your loss hon' on Facebook, on the other hand..."
The Galway-born author cannot remember the last time she got a hand-written, long-form letter - or wrote one. But she greatly appreciates hand-written cards.
"I got a lovely unexpected Thank You letter in the post a couple of months ago, written into a beautiful card. That was very touching," she says. "My friends and I got into the habit of sending letters rather than emails to each other between my first and second year of university, before all of us abandoned the pastime for new media. I still have letters from one friend who was working in the tourist office in Bantry that summer - they were terribly funny, as he was very frustrated with his 'clients' at the time. And those little missives that school kids write to each other in class, I have a glut of those from classmates who remain really good friends of mine. The letters are irreverent and daft. We'd make up stories or write lofty manifestos. I treasure those."
The rise of email has been blamed for everything from the death of letter writing to condemning future generations to knowing little of the personal lives of the great authors, statesmen and scientists. Will anyone bother to keep the seemingly unimportant, youthful electronic-missives of a future Einstein, Churchill or Hemingway?
But as McInerney points out, we are also losing the fine art of handwriting, once taught as a subject in our schools. The author says that once you get out of the physical habit, it is hard to get it back.
"If I even have to address an envelope these days I feel my wrist start to seize up - I wrote a quick essay by hand last year and honestly I'm surprised I didn't need physical therapy afterwards," she says.
"I see the handwriting of people of my grandmother's generation and almost to a person it's breathtakingly elegant. There's an art to it."
It is an art that has, together with the formal (and often intimate) expression of our thoughts on paper, almost disappeared in the 45 years since Ray Tomlinson picked out the symbol @.
We can now send documents and important messages across continents in moments. Email has revolutionised the way we communicate.
But we may have lost much in the way we express ourselves and our thoughts - the poetry of intimacy - in the era of the throwaway, instant email.