Instant messaging is good news for man, bad news for mankind

Imagine having a dozen suits in your wardrobe, dry-cleaned and mothballed periodically, but nowhere to go. Every now and then, you open the wardrobe and look at the suits lovingly and longingly, hoping that an invitation will soon arrive requiring you to wear formals. But the invitation never comes. My condition is somewhat similar today.

I own a rather decent collection of fountain pens. I clean them with water periodically and fill them up with fresh ink, but rarely do I get the chance to put these pens to paper. Yet, greed keeps getting the better of me. About a month ago, I ordered a Ratnam pen from Rajahmundry (the brand is named after its founder Ratnam, who started manufacturing fountain pens in the town way back in 1932, after Gandhi gave the call to boycott foreign goods), but I am yet to find an occasion to take it out of my pocket. Other than using it to initial the attendance register every morning.

When you use a pen, especially a fountain pen, you think several times before committing your thoughts to paper because you don't want to be seen striking out words or sentences too often. As a result, only the clearest of thoughts get transferred when you are writing with a pen, unlike in the case of a computer, where the luxury of the ‘delete' and ‘backspace' keys spares you the trouble of thinking hard before typing out a sentence.

When the screen of the computer is staring at you impatiently, you often make do with thoughts that are floating on the surface instead of plunging deeper. Who has the time?

But, strangely, in an age when communication is instant, communication itself is fast becoming a vanishing art. What we do today – over phone, SMS or online messengers – is merely keep in touch or make small talk.

No longer do we have the urge to communicate, by way of gathering thoughts and putting them down coherently on a piece of paper, because the people we would have liked to write long letters to are now available online 24/7.

We've paid a big price for instant communication, and the price is introspection. While instant communication may be good news for man, it is a terrible thing to happen to mankind. About 100 years from now, when historians set out to document our times, what will they have to fall back on? They will have to break into email accounts or chat transcripts of the who's-who of the 21st Century. Even then, they are unlikely to stumble upon great pieces of literature, but only brief exchanges in SMS lingo.

Even as I write this piece, I can see the spines of two voluminous books peeping from the bookshelf – A Literate Passion (a compilation of the letters between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin) and Under the Sun (a collection of letters by Bruce Chatwin, the celebrated travel writer).

Books such as these would not have existed if Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin exchanged text messages, or if Chatwin carried an iPad. This is another way of saying that in 100 years from now there will be no new biographies or compilations of correspondences between great minds.

In the latest issue of Time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough, when asked whether people not writing letters on paper will affect the study of history, laments, “The loss of people writing – writing a composition, a letter or a report – is not just the loss for the record. It is the loss of the process of working out your thoughts on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren't [writing]. And that's a handicap. People I research were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”

What he calls calisthenics, I call introspection, which died unnoticed the day communication became instant. Imagine having a dozen suits in your wardrobe, dry-cleaned and mothballed periodically, but nowhere to go. Every now and then, you open the wardrobe and look at the suits lovingly and longingly, hoping that an invitation will soon arrive requiring you to wear formals. But the invitation never comes.

My condition is somewhat similar today. I own a rather decent collection of fountain pens. I clean them with water periodically and fill them up with fresh ink, but rarely do I get the chance to put these pens to paper. Yet, greed keeps getting the better of me. About a month ago, I ordered a Ratnam pen from Rajahmundry (the brand is named after its founder Ratnam, who started manufacturing fountain pens in the town way back in 1932, after Gandhi gave the call to boycott foreign goods), but I am yet to find an occasion to take it out of my pocket. Other than using it to put my initials on the attendance register every morning.

When you use a pen, especially a fountain pen, you think several times before committing your thoughts to paper because you don't want to be seen striking out words or sentences too often. As a result, only the clearest of thoughts get transferred when you are writing with a pen, unlike in the case of a computer, where the luxury of the ‘delete' and ‘backspace' keys spares you the trouble of thinking hard before typing out a sentence. When the screen of the computer is staring is at you impatiently, you often make do with thoughts that are floating on the surface instead of plunging deeper. Who has the time?

But, strangely, in an age when communication is instant, communication itself is fast becoming a vanishing art. What we do today – over phone, SMS or various online messengers – is merely keep in touch or make small talk. No longer do we have the urge to communicate, by way of gathering thoughts and putting them down coherently on a piece of paper, because the people we would have liked to write long letters to are now available online 24/7.

We've paid a big price for instant communication, and the price is introspection. While instant communication may be good news for man, it is a terrible thing to happen to mankind. About 100 years from now, when historians set out to document our times, what will they have to fall back on? They will have to double up as hackers in order to break into email accounts or chat transcripts of the who's-who of the 21st century. Even then, they are unlikely to stumble upon great pieces of literature, but only brief exchanges in SMS lingo.

Even as I write this piece, I can see the spines of two voluminous books peeping from the bookshelf – A Literate Passion (a compilation of the correspondence between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin) and Under the Sun (a recently published collection of letters by Bruce Chatwin, the celebrated and short-lived travel writer). I can also see the various hardbound volumes of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru sitting on the bottom rack, acquired from the pavements of Daryaganj in Delhi many years ago. Books such as these – which take you inside great minds – would not have existed if Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin exchanged text messages or if Nehru carried an iPad. This is another way of saying that 100 years from now there will be no new biographies or compilations of correspondences between great minds.

Historians are already beginning to feel the pinch. In the latest issue of Time magazine, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David McCullough, when asked whether people not writing letters on paper will affect the study of history, laments, “The loss of people writing – writing a composition, a letter or a report – is not just the loss for the record. It is the loss of the process of working out your thoughts on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren't [writing]. And that's a handicap. People I research were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”

What he calls calisthenics, I call introspection, which died unnoticed the day communication became instant.