The Death of the Unsent Letter in the Internet Age

When you sit at a desk planning to send a letter you can dramatically reject a draft by violently crumbling it up in your hand. The tactile fell of making a text impossible to send, or even fit in an envelope gave an immediate satisfaction. I even imagine people in the days of Jane Austin flinging the letter in to the fire.

Or perhaps we just write a letter we would like to send, but just never get round to the task to putting it in an envelope, getting a stamp and finding a post box.

In the day, that in the time when most people alive today were growing up, there was a rich store of statements we worked out to other people that never got to those people's. Expressions of anger, love, lust, frustration, pain, everything that makes our culture have colour and intensity.

The amazing thing about unsent letters was the richness of ways of not sending them. They could be crumpled up in the hand, or even torn apart, thrown in the rubbish with food waste, flushed down the toilet; or they could be placed in private boxes, lovingly placed away in books or boxes. Or maybe they just were allowed to flow around in a general mess, a letter meant to be sent but never actually sent.

Letters hold so much more than their content. Though a letter is generally longer than a post on a Facebook wall few letters are the length of emails. Actually the postcard filled most of our needs for letters, and provided what Twitter provides, and excuse for writing very little.

Most letters take a few minutes to read, they are full of pleasantries, and signed by a groups of people though only one person has written the entire thing out. They are usually just lies.

And yet the letter has a power beyond the content of the information. People will announce through the house that they got a letter for so and so who is away in such a place. The letter will be held up and maybe even shown around. If there are others in the house the opening and reading of the letter might cause a small crowd to form. The letter is then disclosed. We are all familiar with the scene in a film where the reader decides the content is too painful and frowns for a moment, before composing herself and saying “he says everything is great”, thus hiding the content of the letter.

Letters were always about hiding information. The envelope, the banal content of the post card, the faked signatures of a family that was clearly not involved in writing, and the endless pleasantries.

How many of us have ever written a “honest” letter in our lives? Even the lost tradition of love letter before text messages was a programmed and routine function. A collection of such letters from different lovers would undoubtedly prove how unimaginative we are in our love.

It was all the lies and deceptions that take place in writing, the collected practice of concealing, lying, falsification, hiding, and distorting that made letter the culture binding practice it was. The rise of letter writing and its golden age were during the Victorian Period. No author captures the ethos of this age like Jane Austin, who is so lovely because she never gets around to saying what she has to say, who fills the world with characters who spend their days and talents hiding their intentions and emotions from each other. Who fear the loss of privacy more than anything else.

That is what letter on paper where: a shared cult of privacy. The creation of them, their sending or non-sending, their reception and their reading all contained little shared information, but brought us all together in a shared conspiracy of hiding and covering.

In a way all letter were unsent letters.

Today every banal remark and pointless line is made public, crawled, indexed, searched, semantically parsed, recorded. Our discourses on Social Networks are governed not by a hiding but by a society obsessed with publicity and exposure, governed by the collection of demographic data. We live in the age obsessed with the endless flow of data. We are held together today in a matrix of radical surveillance, a social order that we are asked to observe but not necessarily participate.

The age of privacy required a writing desk, pen, paper, lighting, envelopes, and the time and effort to send the letter. Opening mail was the hallmark of an evil state and the transmission, though through public channels, was a sacred privacy.

Our age of total surveillance only requires we can tap out a message on a smart phone text pad and press send.


- Bob Hooker