When was the last time you sent a hand written letter to anyone?
When in Amsterdam a couple of months back, I and Lena spent a rainy afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum. Beyond simply taking in and enjoying a lot of Vincent’s great art, I was struck by the man himself; his determined struggle to be the artist he wanted to be, the confidence that told him to keep working, and the gradual collapse of his mental health as the confidence started to wane. Wall by wall, room by room, you could follow how he developed and changed and became ill. It was fascinating, and after having walked through his life in chronological order, I felt I had a sense of who he was.
Most of the knowledge we have about him comes from his letters. He wrote often and long, usually to his brother who was also an artist.
At the exhibition I realized that private letters have been instrumental in understanding the lives of so many of history’s important individuals; artists, politicians, warriors, believers – people that moved and changed the world. By far, we wouldn’t have the same insights into what drove them, what they desired, who they were, if not for ink and paper. But who writes hand written letters these days, now that the Internet has changed everything? It seems as if we all of a sudden are without an important tool for writing our history.
What do we have instead of letters? E-mail is the supposed replacement, but it doesn’t quite invite you to write the type of long, thoughtful letters that people once composed. Communication is fast, cheap and painless today, and I believe that it makes people sloppy in their written communication. E-mail is also merely one of a large number of ways to communicate today. Using myself as an example, I use e-mail but also a cell phone, Skype, blog comments, Steam, Facebook messages and comments, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr… And that’s just at the top of my head.
The written word of today is simplistic and fragmented, and most of a person’s written output will be lost. Social networks become deserted and go offline, passwords are forgotten, chat logs vanish during the next reinstall, e-mail addresses are changed and forgotten or their accounts closed.
There is hope. One form of communication still require coherent thought (from those who own the ability, at least), is completely public, and will remain mirrored even if the server goes offline or the author deletes the content – the blog. Perhaps blogging is more worthwhile than we usually give it credit for. No one knows who will be determined as “interesting” or “important” by the future – van Gogh was considered a nobody during his life – and for those of us who will never be given posthumous praise it might still be of value for the family we leave behind.
My own blog, the one you are reading right now, started out with the name Pixel Park because it was meant to be about digital culture. I wish to move beyond that rather narrow description. I want it to also be about theater, ballet, literature and that friendly duck I met at the summer house. A greater slice of my life.
These blog posts are my letters to you, whoever you are. This is Instead of Letters. Thank you for reading.