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Textual Liberation?

Reflections on digital communication from the last generation that remembers uni-tasking.


Painting: Untitled (Annika With PC), 1998, by Miltos Manetas/Courtesy of Yvon Lambert Gallery, NYC  

The other week I received a chiding e-mail of congratulations from a new friend who had noticed my wedding announcement in the Times online, and felt out of the loop. “The thought process was, ‘Oh wow, Liesl got married! This must be an incredibly recent development,’ ” she teased.

Well, no, not all that incredibly recent, actually. The wedding happened in 1992, and the marriage ended in 1994—before I had ever sent an e-mail, and before the Times had a Web presence to speak of. A few years ago, the Times began posting its archived wedding announcements, and since then, this ghost wedding has haunted Google, provoking sporadic e-mails from other bewildered friends, not to mention a spooked suitor or two. But I am not leading a double life. My marriage was ephemeral; yet on the Internet, it is indestructible. I sent an e-mail to the Times half a year ago, begging for the announcement to be dropped from the online archive: no dice.

I e-mailed my friend, explaining the reason for her confusion, and signed off “L,” but what ended up onscreen was “LLL.” I have grown so used to signing off “L” in cell-phone text messages, by hitting the 5 key three times, that I’d carried over the habit to my keyboard. So I erased the surplus Ls and sent. As I did, I thought about the sweeping changes in communication that have occurred in a little over a decade, which have changed my life and the life of my very specific hinge generation—those of us born in time for Sesame Street (it bowed in 1969) but before the arrival of HBO—more perhaps than we have yet had time to understand. Incredible as this may sound to people not much younger than us, we came of age using paper correspondence, landline phone calls, and real-life encounters to woo our first boyfriends and girlfriends and to land our first jobs.

It’s not like we’d want to go back: We’re as addicted as anyone else to the convenience of text messages, e-mail, cell phones, and PDAs. But beneath our adopted PC-and-text exteriors often lurks a vestigial typewriter-and-cursive mentality. If I were younger, like the friend I e-mailed about my starter marriage, I’d have a MySpace page that could make it clear to anyone whether I was single, married, divorced, or into leather. But for someone my age, to create a MySpace page (without an album to flog) would be an unsavory pose, like going to a college café and pretending to be a student.

I know: As OK Go told us on YouTube, “Get Over It.” But lately I wonder if my peers and I might have more in common with my unhurried midwestern grandmother, who’d phone us, ask “What do you know?” and settle in for a long listen, than we do with a hoodied hipster in Pumas who texts from an art opening. It’s something to do with a lost facility for what we might today call “uni-tasking”—focusing on one person, one thing, at a time. We are the last generation that remembers it. Do we still have the knack? Can we pass it on?

Two new books about the textual revolution show the different characters of the generations that flank mine. Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home was written by two men born near the end of the baby boom, David Shipley, the deputy editorial-page editor and op-ed editor of the New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion. Leisurely, jokey, and crammed with well-digested explanations of how workers should and should not use e-mail, Send is an old-paradigm breakdown of new technology. Meanwhile, The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating, and Techno-Relating, by Kristina Grish, pulses with the fruity, caffeinated glow of the cubicled IM generation. Whereas Grish shows how to maximize the potential fun of digital messaging, Shipley and Schwalbe show how to minimize its potential harms. (For instance: They caution you to remember that anything you e-mail can be maliciously forwarded.) Their book would have been more useful a decade ago—certainly, Enron higher-ups would have benefited. But by now it’s far too late for any of us, corrupt or honest, to unsend all the embarrassing, immoderate, misdirected communiqués our evil twins sent out when the Internet was in its infancy. Still, we’re in good time to start asking other questions about the textual revolution: not how the new technology works (if we don’t know that by now, we’re unemployed, retired, stupid, or quaintly perverse) but how it has changed us.

The first time someone pushed e-mail on me was late in 1993, only a couple of years after Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the World Wide Web at CERN, the Swiss particle-physics laboratory. A woman was boasting to me about her red-hot e-mail exchanges with a lover. “It’s incredible,” she gushed. “It’s so intimate, and you hear back immediately. You must set up an e-mail account.” At the time, I balked. In 1993, setting up an e-mail account sounded as complicated as doing a DIY wiring job. (Besides, nobody I knew had e-mail.) A couple of years later, I had both a work and a home e-mail account, and so, it seemed, did everybody else.

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