The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.
When Neil Postman writes, “Each medium makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility,” he means that each medium for sharing information (letter-writing, telephone, smoke signals, etc.) re-orients our brains—not in a neurological sense, necessarily, but in the way we communicate, and in what we communicate. More than that, the medium affects what we think in the first place.
For example, I would never think about tsunamis or earthquakes in other countries if it weren’t delivered to me as “the news of the day.” If letter-writing were our main means of communicating information, I wouldn’t find out until months afterward—and they probably wouldn’t even tell me unless I had a family member in the region.
Sometimes I like to imagine…
How different our constitution might be if it had been composed on the computer. Would typing, instead of writing with dip pens, have altered the things that the Founding Fathers thought important enough to include? Would they have wikipedia’d other nations’ governments first in order to do a thorough comparison study?
But the medium affects more than the contents of the information-document. The difference in information-mediums between the 18th century and the 21st —that is, dip pens and written letters versus email, news web sites, and texting—affects the quality and the meaning of our individual (and national) character. Think about how different a meaning “patriotism” had when it didn’t involve bumper stickers or even military service, but rather it meant: sitting at a desk in a cold, cold house, way out in the boonies, reflecting on the things that you believed in. You wouldn’t have been affected by any media-hype; instead, you would read a bunch of pamphlets, written by other people in cold, dark houses. You would reflect on their thoughts, and respond to them. And each of those pamphlets would have been well thought out– you kind of have to be more thoughtful, when you’re writing more slowly. (Dip…5 words….dip…4 words…)
If we still defined patriotism this way, I think we’d have a healthier nation. How strange to think that we might actually reflect on our beliefs, instead of becoming a “fan” of ideology X on Facebook. Personally, I think we’re damn lucky that the Founding Fathers were writing with dip pens when they declared independence. We at least know that it wasn’t a rash decision (“Shit! I hit “send” on that email to King George too early!”).
Quite a few people have already written admirable essays on the benefits of letter writing–though I embarrassingly don’t have their links on hand–and I don’t need to repeat them. It’s also important to note that none of us are advocating for the demise of technology: emails and quick-composition on the computer serve an important function in today’s world. My point is that we must keep in mind the effect that each medium has on what we write, not just how we write. In other words, it’s not about using “omg” instead of “oh my god” –it’s about how our responses to surprising news have become limited to an automatic acronym—“omg!”—without any real, individual reflection.
So I received this great letter (pictured at the top) along with my order for ten new dip nibs this past week. I appreciate knowing that this person took ten, fifteen minutes to focus on communicating with me. And it wasn’t multi-tasked with checking email or youtube (because distractions, trust me, are a killer when you’re using dip nibs. India ink dries fast. And the next thing you know, you’ve shellacked your fingers together).
Check back soon to see what projects I come up with for these new nibs. I’m currently working on a big artsy birthday present for a friend, so they might become a useful tool for that…