:: Article

The Beating Heart: An Argument for Email

By Tomoé Hill.


Our technology-driven world frowns upon lingering. Users—or people, as we used to be called—are not encouraged to spend time in the actual process of communication. Process is a means to an end; it does not equal pleasure. Every device and app we use makes this clear. Somehow we have found our lives increasingly automated for efficiency, yet we feel more and more like it is streamlining us right to death. Slow is bad, fast is good, faster is more productive. Hitting send once isn’t enough. Hit send repeatedly, now you’re getting things done. But like the impossible requests asked of Milo by the demon of petty tasks in the children’s story The Phantom Tollbooth, there is always one more send button to hit, one more thing to post. Our data has become increasingly valuable in the information economy; therefore, technology companies need us to share as much of ourselves as we can. When our interactions are driven by the needs of technology providers, rather than users, personal communication inevitably suffers.

Once we spoke, now we text. Tweets are 140 characters; DMs are a deferral of real communication; Facebook feels like messages tacked on a notice board. For the most part, these new platforms are designed for fast interactions—placeholders for a real conversation that you will most likely never have—or at least, while not impossible, finding the people who are truly kindred spirits becomes a less organic occurrence and more one akin to algorithm. Of course when we do, any negativity or cynicism dissolves in the face of this pleasure—the Saussurean ‘treasure’ of speech that can be extended to the online community and its keystroke interactions—but it does not quite erase the fact that the cacophony of chatter makes this a harder one to unearth.

As that wary prophet of future technology Ray Bradbury remarked about the Internet in Listen to the Echoes, “It’s distracting us… people are talking too much about nothing.” This is the paradox of the modern digital world; the very things that are meant to simplify instead complicate and distract. Communication is at the heart of most socio-technological advances, but we forget that heart belongs to us, and it is up to us to make it beat with real pleasure again. This is where the email—overlooked, much maligned, but vital—shines.

Let’s re-examine slow. Slow isn’t necessarily bad, slow can mean quality. It means thinking, lingering, anticipating. It’s what brings you pleasure and ultimately your reward. Beneath all the texts, posts and tweets, two things remain constant: we want to have personal interaction, and we are still writing. Email is where lovers of words and brilliant conversation can still find that unlimited, quiet writing space, the only constraints being the ones we set ourselves. There is a particular luxury, almost a decadent feeling when you realise that you can write so freely to another person: a family member, a friend, a lover, a stranger. Whether it is the first message in a correspondence, brief and finding its feet, or a long rambling missive—the contents of one’s thoughts pouring out like water from an overfilled glass, there is a flutter: the anticipation of what could be, what is to come. Anticipation is the antithesis of expectation; the latter is the natural result of living in a fast world, a demand that is bound to disappoint because we apply it to everything. There is a philosophical weight to the email that nods to Beckett’s Godot: the entire process is about everything and nothing. What you are waiting for is not the message itself, but something far greater—understanding.

Lovers of the written word are more prone in this digital age to steadfastly hang on to the idea of the email as an old-fashioned letter. Even for those of us who wax poetic about the pleasures of writing longhand, we must grudgingly admit our days and nights are too full to put real pen to paper. We must bow at least partially to the ever-increasing demands of time, and so flying fingertips on keys become our quill, a backlit window our parchment. Email may be the technological replacement for old-fashioned letters, but crucially, it still leaves us to do the actual work. Writing is a complex process: we are talking, thinking, emoting, building. Writing is communication, but it is also so much more than the sum of its parts. When two people write to each other and find themselves wrapped up in the process, there is an almost indefinable quality about it—but we suddenly understand again what it is like to connect, even though we spend almost all of our daily lives connected. In the 1980s the telephone company AT&T used the slogan “reach out and touch someone” to extoll the pleasures of lengthy, heart to heart conversations. While there is no escaping phones, it can be argued that we use them far more to text or check our various social media accounts or send emails than we actually do to speak. By that logic, if we are writing more than speaking, the email—often now overlooked as something used mainly for work, or considered unsexy as it never really changes—should rightly be the technology that lets us create those long-lasting human connections, or at least be the catalyst for them.

This connection creates its own rich universe, where the only two inhabitants are its correspondents. Writing entwines with reading in such a manner that it becomes impossible to separate the two: we read while simultaneously composing a response in our heads before we start to type, and write imagining the receiver drinking in our words. The most worthwhile email correspondence is selfless and selfish, acting as both best friend and lover. We consider what the other needs, and what we want to give them, knowing—or at least hoping—that we will receive the same intimate consideration. Stanislas Dehaene, in the beginning of Reading in the Brain, explains the neurological processes involved when we read: “the phonological route, which converts letters into speech sounds, and the lexical route, which gives access to a mental dictionary of word meanings.” And yet, through these precise workings flows a kind of beautiful chaos, an endorphin rush that says, yes—I know I am reading, but more importantly, I am feeling. Feeling is what we seek to replicate in our online relationships; frustratingly, we are limited by the constraints of the platforms we use—not only do they suppress words, they suppress emotion. Is a ‘like’ or an emoji as a means of expression ever truly satisfying for anyone? It is nothing more than shorthand, and some of us long to read sentences piled upon sentences, rich with humanity. (The emoji is an indicator of our fundamental unease about communicating with faceless strangers—an unsubtle wink or nudge in the ribs, symbolic of our terror that the nuances of our speech will be misinterpreted online.)

There is a point where we mutually exchange or offer an email address for potential communication. The latter is a one-sided invitation that we are not yet sure will be accepted, the former signals curiosity as well as a kind of adventurousness on both sides. Email can now widely be acknowledged as the penultimate stage (or even the ultimate) of getting to know a person. As with our face to face relationships, we progress through levels of trust, starting with a tweet or a Facebook post before deciding that we want to carry the conversation—the relationship—further. Sometimes it can seem with the ever-changing and numerous options of digital communication that we are no longer so discerning about who we speak to. If anything, we are more discerning: information is laid out before our eyes in a way that is not outside of a screen (bios, pseudonym screen names, likes, as well as a historical trail of what has been said), or not as immediately obvious. We put everyone through these little checks and tests, even if we do not consciously realise it; only when we are satisfied that they meet an acceptable level of trust do we start to think that we might want to take it further. And this is the beauty of email: no character limits, no unwanted comments, just you and another person talking about whatever you want, for as long as you want. Communicating in the most public way possible, where your audience is not just those you know but everyone you don’t—out of sight in the digital darkness—we are both aware and unaware that every word is judged; that we are judged. By the time we come to exchanging email addresses, we feel that any future judgements and validations made in correspondence will be honest ones worth listening to.

But why is such importance placed on the email address—even unconsciously—as a turning point in relationship communication? Perhaps we understand, deep down, that no matter how much some of us might claim to enjoy social media or how many “friends” or followers we have, there is a limit to the quality of such communication. If we get along with someone well here, we want to turn that feeling of quasi-friendship into something that feels more real. Beyond that, trust is never instantaneous, and the email address is symbolic of trust, a reward gained. If it does feel like working through levels in a game, perhaps that is only natural in the digital world. Just as you understand the function of a part of a machine by studying the whole, it becomes easier to comprehend the emotional system used in building a relationship viewed in the context of one’s surroundings. But also consider an alternate meaning to reward here: the email address is like a password in that both are keys; the latter protects personal information, the former in its way, protects the person. The email address functions as the unlocking of a door behind which lies great treasure.

For the shy, the virtual letter acts as an introduction to the world, allowing us to say the things that we would be too tongue-tied to utter to strangers. The screen stands before us like a coquette’s fan as we hit send and let our words slip electronically but no less intimately from one inbox to another. For lovers, it is a conversation without end, only pauses—the blank white of a new reply an infinite canvas for fantasies. Psychologically, clicking on a message and opening it out in full gives us the same feeling as opening an envelope or a gift. Anticipation here is a kind of curiosity; you know something is coming, but you never know what until you reveal the contents. Other forms of communication don’t come with the same feeling—I’ve considered texts and tweets and DMs from real lovers and virtual ones, but none are quite like the email.

Email reminds me of the days when I would write long missives on coloured notepaper, place stamps on the matching envelopes and post them off to Canada or England or wherever the love in my life lived at that moment. In this it is a kind of dance; there have been several romantic relationships in my life that were ‘virtual’ loves before they ever materialised in front me at an airport or a train station. It was the ceaseless exchange of words that made us fall in love, that immediate plunging into the depths of the other’s heart. As Barthes says about the love letter in A Lover’s Discourse, “for the lover the letter has no tactical value: it is purely expressive—at most, flattering (but here flattery is not a matter of self-interest, merely the language of devotion); what I engage in with the other is a relation, not a correspondence: the relation brings together two images.” Having what is in effect a blind conversation requires a larger degree of trust than if you initially met someone in person. After all, a letter is an invitation to discover, whether it is intentional or not. The absence of physical presence takes away a certain distraction. We focus on the words in front of us, and we read meaning not just in the words, but in the space between.

The romantic appeal of the letter still clings to the email like a ghost; not just in terms of love, but also as a pure exchange of thought. There is an assumption of directness that has remained in spite of its technological transformation. From this pen, these fingers, the contents of my mind emerge directly. This is an echo of Vilém Flusser in Gestures: “Thinking expresses itself in a whole range of gestures. But writing, with its unique straight linearity and inherent dialectic between the words of a whispered language and the message to be expressed, has a special place among the gestures of thinking.” Here there is something of another paradox: the logical application of writing one’s thoughts when the entire process is wrapped in some sort of dream-state. This is even more relevant when the two correspondents have never met. Does the real appear unreal, and if so, how does one become real through letters alone? At the best of times, we have a natural tendency to project aspects of ourselves onto others. Are correspondents a kind of automata, built and brought to life by words, a personality shaped with each new email? A fitting comparison; logic and fantasy brought together to create a complete being.

There have always been great letter writers. We see collected volumes of these correspondences even now, so we know the appeal of letter-writing endures. It will be interesting to see if the email archives of the famous will be of the same interest, or if there is a more ephemeral attitude towards the email—if once they are out of sight, they are out of mind. This raises an important question: are you someone who writes a fresh new email each time, or do you simply hit reply forever? I prefer the latter: it feels more like an ongoing story. So what is it that makes a great email correspondent? The same qualities as the old-fashioned letter writer: a sense of openness and adventure, the appreciation of risk (as you are venturing into unknown territory), a degree of fearlessness, and perhaps most importantly, empathy. Emotions in emails can seem to be magnified. The empathetic writer/reader senses this, and is equally capable of exchanging lightning-quick witticisms as if they were in a tennis match, feeling the weight of a petulantly thrown barb, or the overwhelming wave of love from a declaration. The best correspondents act as a kind of mirror while at the same time maintaining a completely distinct personality. We see ourselves reflected in each other, but it is the furthest thing from narcissism; it is a kind of learning-admiration.

According to J. G. Ballard, “Imagination is the shortest route between any two conceivable points”. Thankfully, in the case of the email, this is not streamlining as the removal of imagination and pleasure by digital process, but the extension of them instead. Our messages may travel the globe in seconds, but the rewards of writing them are anything but fleeting.



Tomoé Hill was born in Wisconsin and after escaping to London, now lives and writes in the South of England. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literatureminor literature[s]Open Pen, and LossLit. She is deputy and reviews editor at minor literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 13th, 2016.