Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The contents of a mailbox can become amusingly mundane: bills, solicitations, catalogs, credit card offers, and assorted other odds and ends that wind up in the recycling bin without being read. While there may be the occasional postcard or (gasp!) letter mixed in, such items represent a break in the routine more than a regular occurrence. Mail does not receive that much thought these days as e-mail, social media, and text messaging have increasingly supplanted the communicative functions of letters, postcards and cards commemorating life-cycle events. But as people turn a warier and charier eye towards certain electronic modes of communication, perhaps it is time to reconsider actually writing down your messages, sticking them in an envelope, and putting them in the mailbox.
There are certainly some who enjoy handwritten letters from a deliberately anachronistic position, still others speak of the “lost art” of letter writing, and there are those who simply appreciate the ephemeral quality of a letter over the ethereal quality of e-mail. Such stances are not without their reasons and values – after all, a box of cards/letters/postcards can be a more pleasant thing to sift through than page after page of e-mails (which may not be saved with the same eye towards posterity). Yet the intention here is not to recite a paean to the letter, or to fetishize them – but to consider them in the context of contemporary concerns. Specifically: at a moment when we are concerned about who is reading/capturing/storing/passing on our communications carried out online, is there a reason to reconsider the letter sealed in a stamped envelope?
While some of the initial thoughts that motivate this thinking may still be couched in the murky waters in the wake of revelations about the NSA “collecting the whole haystack” – it is further prompted by a variety of other concerns. From social media platforms that admit with only mild regret (they regret getting caught) to experimenting on users to companies whose business model consists of mining your messages/posts/e-mails for data – there are reasons to be somewhat hesitant about funneling your personal communications through corporate channels. The recent story about Google turning a man over to the police based on the contents of an e-mail provide an odd situation – nobody is defending what the man in question was sending – but the reason the story attracted any attention was that it prompted many people to say “wait, Google is doing that?” The man who was arrested was sending heinous content (again, nobody is defending what he did) – but the subtext of the story is that the messages you send by e-mail are being read by figures other than the intended recipient. It may be a hyperbolic – and deliberately silly – counter example but imagine you sent an e-mail to a friend containing a picture of you clearly jay-walking or a message where you talk about greatly exceeding the speed limit: could this lead to a ticket showing up in your mailbox? Alas, one of the lessons of late when it comes to technology is that a belief of “no, that won’t happen” is about as effective a defense as an umbrella filled with holes.
The question of “who is reading your e-mail” is one that is largely a high-tech problem and thus it comes as little surprise that it has led to a variety of high-tech solutions: ranging from encryption to less corporate communications platforms (which may get shutdown, see: LavaBit). Yet, as is so often the case when it comes to high-tech problems it may be more effective to look for solutions in the enduring present instead of towards an ever more technological future. Letters (written communication) are a technology of the enduring present, they can certainly be traced back hundreds of years, and yet they are still fully functional today – the letter in an envelope is a confluence of technologies that has proved remarkably durable as well as quite diffuse and cheap. Indeed the various pieces of technology involved in actually writing down and sending letters serve as good examples of what Lewis Mumford termed “democratic technics,” Ivan Illich called “tools for conviviality,” and E.F. Schumacher referred to as “appropriate technology.” A handwritten letter is a pretty basic thing (from a technological perspective), but it works remarkably well – and many of the privacy concerns that are raised by online communications do not need to be obsessed over when it comes to letters. And as an added bonus, the margins of a letter are unlikely to be filled with advertisements.
This is not to claim that letters or postcards are perfectly private. Anybody with even a passing familiarity of the history of censorship or repression will likely be able to rattle off examples of confiscated periodicals, destroyed letters, or materials that have been read over by suspicious officials. Yet it is worth considering this in relation to a communication form such as e-mail which is read over (or scanned over) by a host of corporate algorithms and then swept into a government dragnet that does all of this again. While not suggesting that it should be considered iron-clad privacy protection (really, what is?) it should be remembered that letters are protected under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution – meaning a warrant is required before your mail can be read. As for e-mail? Alas, the same cannot be said, and we agree to allow our messages to be read over (and who knows what else?) when we click “I agree” on those ever-shifting terms of service agreements. And though the former point may be of more relevance to users of large propriety e-mail platforms (Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc…) the simple fact is that more people use such services than more privacy friendly platforms.
Indeed – at best e-mail (and other forms of electronic communications) are more similar to a postcard than a letter (regardless of the length of the message). The writer of the postcard message may feel fairly certain that none but the intended will read the message, but it can easily be read over by one who feels so compelled. The message is exposed for those who have their gaze turned towards it.
The aim is not to scoff at encryption or other privacy enhancing technologies – but to suggest that such steps often function as technological solutions to technological problems, which in turn seem to only advance a never ending cycle of such problems and solutions. While it is certainly true that a letter or a postcard is not as speedy a method of communication as an e-mail or other electronic communiqué – it is worth pondering if perhaps privacy is amongst the costs we pay for such speed. Maybe an important step to take for the sake of privacy is to stop searching online for more privacy programs but to search your desk for a pen and some paper.
It could well be that the price of privacy is the cost of a postage stamp.