Yesterday morning I somewhat randomly reminisced about my introduction to email and how I used electronic messaging “early on” (at least in my personal history). During high school I had an AOL email account (as a consequence of using Instant Messenger, of course). I rarely used AOL for email and when I did, it was almost always related to school.
I started using email more often my freshman year in college. My cousin, an IT professional, told me about Gmail and after trying it I thought it was incredible compared to AOL (it was). I was amazed at the constantly-increasing megabyte count on the log-in screen. And the service was free.
Even in in the winter of 2005, I was one of the only people I knew among my freshman friends using Gmail. For fun, I looked up the first email I sent from my personal account (which is still in use). I remember sending it: I’d changed my AOL email to something more professional (my Instant Messenger handle was “snowrider34”), which required me to notify my contacts. After hearing about Gmail, I made another change and notified my contacts again. Apparently my father noticed the quick double-switch.
After signing up for Gmail, I used email prolifically. I remember the feeling of emailing customer service addresses when I had problems and those problems being addressed without the need for a phone call. It was powerful. Most often, though, I used email as an expedited letter service to maintain long-form correspondence with family and friends. I had long preferred typing to writing, so the efficiency of sending letters digitally was wonderful.
Thinking back on that time made me wonder about the last time I sent a long-form message via email to a friend or family member. Try as I might, I can’t remember. I haven’t sent a long digital letter in quite some time.
I’m not necessarily mourning the loss of that prior communication style or use of email as much as I’m processing the change. The transformation of my use of technology – and me as a user – is fascinating and I believe worth some study.
Before, I used email as a simple, efficient communication tool. Now, I struggle to list all of the things I use email for. Customer service, marketing, networking, sales, notifications, alerts, research, announcements, event management, project management, picture sharing and even exchanging money all come to mind when I think about this past week. And that list doesn’t address the applications that are intimately tied to Gmail now (Calendar, Drive, etc.).
I won’t go into as much detail, but I had a similar experience with Twitter. Later in college Twitter was a fun way to exchange messages with friends, keep up to date with their day-to-day activity and efficiently disseminate funny memes and inside jokes. Now, my experience of the service includes professional networking, news distribution and commentary, advertising, self-promotion and social activism, to name a few.
Text messaging has also changed. Sending an SMS used to cost money and was reserved for important, time-sensitive messages. Now I have relationships whose communication is sustained primarily via messaging.
The very experience of the internet itself has changed. We used to have a computer tethered to the wall by a cord—a computer the entire family used. Now the internet is with me almost any place I go on my “phone” (another topic for another post). Even more fascinating is that if I want to access the internet from a more powerful machine like my laptop, I can leverage my phone’s internet connection to accomplish that.
There are very few barriers between me and the web, and the last, hardware-based blockades are almost completely gone in much of my day-to-day life. Even when I travel, wifi on airplanes is becoming standard. (As I’ve written before, this is a global trend. Shepherds in Turkey have begun to use donkey-mounted solar panels to stay connected1).
Part of me does mourn these changes. I think we as humans have a tendency to long for the simple because there’s comfort in the absence of complexity. Even though technology promises increased simplicity, the blinding pace of its progress means complexity is unavoidable for at least some people in society. And, in fact, the digital products we use have become more complex and powerful. For me, usage of tools like email have become much more complicated to deal with over time, even if they have afforded me more convenience in the process.
Another part of me knows that I’m the one who’s changed. I’m certainly aware that I demand more of technology than I used to. I’ve come to expect convenience. I’ve also changed the way I communicate with people. Long form written word has largely been replaced with spoken word and phone calls. Also, at this point in my life I have less long-distance relationships to manage and live closer to my family than I did in college.
Michael Sacasas brings this self-revelation to light in a post called “Our Little Apocalypses”2:
Franzen is still working on the assumption that these little personal apocalypses are a generational phenomenon. I’d argue that he’s underestimated the situation. The rate of change may be such that the apocalypses are now intra-generational. It is not simply that my world is not my parents’ world; it is that my world now is not what my world was a decade ago. We are all exiles now, displaced from a world we cannot reach because it fades away just as its contours begin to materialize. This explains why, as I wrote earlier this year, nostalgia is not so much a desire for a place or a time as it is a desire for some lost version of ourselves. We are like Margaret, who in Hopkins’ poem, laments the passing of the seasons, Margaret to whom the poet’s voice says kindly, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” (emphasis mine)
In some ways, reminiscing on the past is reminiscing about who I used to be. Not all of the change I see is good. I have months-old emails from friends that I haven’t replied to and that bothers me. 2005-me wouldn’t have neglected those messages for so long. I also wasn’t building a startup company then, either.
Speaking of which, another part of me is grappling with the fact that the increased complexity I face—and struggle with much of the time—is simply the standard for someone with my skillset in my line of work. Learning how to manage the complex side effects of technological change is simply part of my job. That’s not a new idea, as I’ve said before, but the implications of modern technological advance on our work, our daily lives, our society and economy are far-reaching in a way that previous technologies weren’t.
Of course, theoretically, we retain ultimate power as the users of technology (at least for now) and we can choose how (or if) we want to use these tools. I’ve framed those choices as “stewardship” in a previous post3.
I’ve also pointed out before that there are social (or real) consequences to not using these tools in the way that society (or business) uses them. For example, I’ve done everything possible to stem the tide of email I deal with at work, even making communication ‘rules’ for our company and my team. Even so, the swell is often overwhelming. But email as a part of business isn’t going anywhere.
I’ve mulled over this for some time and I can’t seem to write a good conclusion to this post. Perhaps there’s not one right now.
The point I want to make is that these issues are difficult to deal with and my options don’t seem to be cut-and-dry. The temptation is to stop dealing with them and fall one one side of the fence or the other, either giving into “the way things are now” or adopting a luddite reaction and shunning complexity altogether.
Both, I believe are dangerous. What I do know is that thinking about these things and asking questions is a great place to start.
1. You can read my brief article about the ubiquity of the web here.2. You can read the full Sacasas article about our personal apocalypses on his site.3. You can read my post about stewarding time, attention and technology here