Nick Bilton’s blog post for the Times, ”Disruptions: Life’s Too Short for so Much E-Mail,” butted its way into my reading queue this morning. Although I enjoyed Bilton’s vague melancholia—so many e-mails, so little time—I cannot empathize with his distress. Against my better intuitions, I enjoy e-mail. Admittedly, my fondness for what is becoming an outmoded holdover from the early days of the Internet is bound up in nostalgia for the adolescent web. In the following love letter to e-mail, I hope to situate my feelings in their appropriate context while complicating an otherwise simplistic, nostalgic impulse: to desperately clutch at the images scrolling backwards into our cultural RAM.
I have a sordid and messy love affair with e-mail. As a little boy, I hated e-mail like the evil stepmother of print letters. Until I turned 14, I engaged in a thorough but pointless rebellion against digital communications. I refused to use instant messaging, my AOL inbox filled with unanswered notices about soccer practice and science competitions, and I spent only 30 minutes a day on the computer. If a friend wanted to contact me, he either picked up the phone or sent me a postcard. I think I clung to print, despite my Gen Y affiliation, because I felt uncomfortable with the anonymity of the Internet. Computers and digital communications seemed entirely inhuman, even when a human being sat behind a desktop terminal some thousand miles away. I’m also slow to accept change. I have little interest in the flickering whims of the fashion industry. I did not adopt Gmail until the second semester of my freshman year in college, and only then because I worked for a newspaper that required editors to use a Gmail address. Up to 2010, I could be found camping out on the wasted desert plains of AOL. I liked the sensation of being the last man: a lonely wanderer on the crust of a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrounging for dry crumbs and the yeasty whiff of an Eve. When or if GMail starts to lose popularity, keep emailing me there; I’ll maintain an outpost until starvation sets in.
At some point, my hatred of e-mail—its brisk impersonality, peculiar lexicon, and brevity—metamorphosed into a beautiful and strange love. I still refused to communicate in the vernacular of e-mail, but I embraced the system itself. If I never abandoned print letters entirely, I supplemented my postal activities with more instantaneous communications. I loved the announcement “You’ve Got Mail.” It signaled the touch of a tendril, faint but real, from one friend or spammer or Nigerian businessman looking for investment partners to another. I never allowed that tentacular contact to substitute for warm-blooded interaction. Rather, the spectacle of a conversation, projected into cyberspace, functioned like a memory, ghostly and transparent and a reminder of what happens between people in physical space.
18th and 19th century readers enjoyed epistolary novels, like Clarissa, because they replicated the thrill of opening a letter immediately and repeatedly for a sustained interval. When we read epistolary fiction, our stomachs twist and turn as though we have catapulted over the precipice of a theme park ride. The addictive structure of narrative—we want to find out what happens next—is easily built around a series of letters. E-mail allows us to live out our own epistolary novels. The expectation of immediacy and the generation of searchable archives immerse us in the medium. There is an ineffable pleasure in watching the story of our lives unfold on our computer screens. Facebook has been our preferred social media instrument, as a culture, because it reproduces the phenomenon of e-mail, and in turn, the epistolary novel. The timeline, the provocateur of collective anger when first released, has become Facebook’s trademark functionality. Though more primitive and less automatic, e-mail is the progenitor of an online epistolary tradition. I became addicted to my personal, digital “papers.” Like the collector who desires and seeks and dreads the acquisition of the final element in a series, I wanted to construct complete chains of letters from fragmentary conversations.
Where Nick Bilton laments the pile-up of e-mail, the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of inbox messages, an imaginary tower of letters was my central fetish. I loved email because of its slippage into hoarding behavior. Like Bilton, I do not care to respond to every urgent call for penile enhancement or funny joke from my grandfather or automatic Facebook notification. I do reply to communications from real people, but what I really love about e-mail is the potential for absurdity, always ready to erupt into explicit psychosis. The incoming messages of spammers and annoying acquaintances offer opportunities for irregular, abnormal interaction. What if you responded to every e-mail with genuine thought and feeling? What if you treated the spammer as an authentic being? The spam e-mail is a vector that affirms your status as the thinking, feeling being, a status to which the spammer never ascends. Spam forecloses reciprocity: the only possibility for ethical action—to treat the spammer as human—requires an abandonment of ontological discipline. E-mail gives us the chance to treat computers and robots and advertising assembly lines as subjects, not machines—as beings, not objects. An overstuffed inbox is a representation of many live possibilities that will never reach fulfillment; it is a hall of mirrors that reflects our own status as being-in-the-world, but nothing else. So I find e-mail a profoundly sad phenomenon, but nevertheless, one full of hope.
I love e-mail because I loathe its presupposition: that there is an intrinsic separation between the blooded and the electrical.
I love e-mail because it is a ritual that does not impose meaning on my life, but rather illustrates how meaning can emerge from unfulfilled possibility.
I love e-mail because it is a transient record of my life. I love e-mail because it is a manifestation of the permanent impermanence of human experience.
I love e-mail because it is too much and never enough, because it is an example of how dilution becomes oversaturated, of how information gets stretched too thin and becomes ethereal.
With the ever increasing sexiness of start-up culture, the libidinal energy powering techno-innovation is immense. The Internet is not there, anywhere, but registers its own presence in fluxus. The constant change and “progress” of Internet technology promises newness at every discrete instant. Yet, the acceleration of innovation leaves behind successive innovations like fossils in an ancient dry sea. It is a beautiful thing to run your fingers over those knobbly bones, to ponder their calcifications, and to remember. Undoubtedly, e-mail will continue to evolve into communication systems with no obvious connection to a common ancestor. But even after e-mail has gone extinct, I will love it and revisit its grave.