My Lost Art of Writing Electronic Mail

I was not an early adopter of email, or internet browsing in general. Like a lot of people of my generation — those of us who attended college in the early 90s — my first experience with email and the Internet occurred as a college student. The most tech savvy of my peers at the small art school I attended in Philadelphia were huddled around PC terminals, logging on to text-based MUDs or communicating with old high school friends on distant campuses via Telnet email. Although I had grown up around PCs in home and at school, at the time I was too preoccupied with some other version of life in which the analog tactility of spaces, objects, images, and sound consumed by life. I suppose that the black and green text-world of those early interfaces proved too opaque for a visual artist whose conservative art education gave little import to the coming digital revolution.

Soon enough, though, the GUI of Windows 95 and the oddly segmented Internet within its realm (eg. AOL’s “you’ve got mail!”) encroached on my world. This more accessible and graphical interface coincided with a greater number of my friends going online. (The language we used at that time is so awkward — “going online” — the image of Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Mnemonicdonning VR googles and gloves haunts me.) Finally for me, email began to make sense. I had always been a letter writer, and here was a much more immediate and equally gratifying medium of correspondence. Let me qualify “more immediate”: I would sit down at a desktop computer once or twice a day, boot it up, unplug the phone in order to plug the line into the computer modem, open the ISP software, dial up, and finally access the browser. The friends I exchanged email with did more or less the same with varying frequency — very much a “pull” technology; our brains had not yet been rewired to crave the dopamine rush of instant gratification that pings and vibrates in our pockets today, that incessant “push.”

My point of reference for this new communication, this electronic mail, was still the writing and sending of letters via the postal service. And that activity was essentially a literary one, a matter of crafting through careful language very precise expressions of ideas, imagery, emotion, and memory which were meant to affect the recipient. I carried this craft into the digital domain of email, ignorant of the intrinsic properties that we have come to value and loathe in the medium. Email had not yet become such a tool for coordinating daily routines, arranging meetings, and planning everything, much less the singular organizing and managerial force in our contemporary work lives. The choice of my first email address is telling for its overt bookishness: pursewarden@juno.com. Pursewarden is a second-tier character in Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet, books which loomed so large in my imaginative life at the time that I needed to roll them into my first online identity. I must have chosen Juno.com because it was a free email service, but I’ll claim the reference to classical mythology in support of the literary motif.

I unexpectedly recalled these early days with email while listening to an interview with Errol Morris on Reply All. The interview recounts Morris’ very personal investigation into the life of his brother, Noel Morris, a brilliant computer scientist who worked at MIT and invented the first electronic mail system there with his colleague, Tom Van Vleck. During a conversation with Van Vleck, we learn that when testing the system he would write whatever fragments came to mind: “I used to send scraps of poetry and stuff like that.

Scraps of poetry. It was that quick, inconsequential aside that pricked my memory. I, too, once sent scraps of poetry via email in those crafted messages of nearly two decades ago. I haven’t done that in a very long time. I wonder if it’s me who has changed, or if the medium has changed, or perhaps if my sense of possibility in the medium has just been so diminished by its profound banality. It doesn’t have to be that way. I could email you some scraps of poetry.