Webelieve we are people of letters. Like our 18th century ancestors, we fire off missives and conduct epistolary relationships. We text, we tweet, we Facebook, we email, we Slack, we DM, we Bumble message, we Discord, we — well, one of us — Truth Socials.
We are wasting our time.
What we are doing feels like writing, in that we are putting letters in an order that gives them meaning. But it is not writing.
Writing lets us settle into someone else’s brain. It expands our worldview. It allows us to meditatively compare our own beliefs and experiences to the writer’s. Novels, biographies, and longform narrative nonfiction deliver perspective better than any other medium, including GoPros.
This is not what we’re doing. Instead, under the guise of writing, we’re avoiding conversation.
When my wife and I fight, she will sometimes get so upset she refuses to talk to me. Instead, she writes me long texts explaining her position, her feelings, and her perspective. I read them. She feels like I have absorbed her argument and changed my mind.
This is not what happened.
Instead, I’ve concocted six refutations for everything she said. But I have learned to either keep them to myself or talk to her in person. I do not text my thoughts back. Partly because I know how futile this form of communication is. And partly because she will not pay my preferred rate of $2 a word.
We like to type instead of talk because it gives us The Last Word Fallacy. When we tweet, we’re convinced we’ve dunked. We’ve won the argument. But we haven’t. The other person doesn’t, as we imagine, feel nearly as much like we’ve won as we do. In fact, they might have skimmed instead of — as we assume — performed a close reading, infusing as much meaning to our comma as the NRA did with the second amendment.
In Infinite Jest, a novel largely about how technology isolates us, David Foster Wallace imagines a world where people give up video calls because face-to-face communication punctures the Last Word Fallacy:
Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her…. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it.
In his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong, a Jesuit professor who studied under Marshall McLuhan, argued that writing is a technology, and a rather new one in human history. It radically changed the way we think. He writes: “Print encourages a sense of closure, a sense that what is found in a text has been finalized, has reached a state of completion.”
He sums up the difference between speaking and writing with “sight isolates, sound incorporates.” Spoken language, he claimed, spurs intimacy and imagination in a way that the written communication doesn’t. While Martin Luther’s 95 Theses changed minds, it doesn’t inspire with the urgency of Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream,” Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches,” FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you” — they’re all spoken. Sure, the Declaration of Independence is neat, but how fired up did people get over:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
It sounds like a wimpy college student taking forever to break up with his girlfriend. “When in the course of human events, it comes necessary for one comparative-lit major to dissolve the agreed-upon mutual monogamy which connected him to another comparative-lit major….”
Ong says that unlike writing, speaking is “empathetic and participatory.” Because, he says, “To speak, you have to address another or others. People in their right minds do not stray through the woods just talking at random to nobody.” Meanwhile, “the writer’s audience is always a fiction.”
For many years, I have told my friends and family that I don’t like to text. They all politely told me they understand and agree not to conduct conversations with me in that medium. Only one person has actually stopped texting.
I know it was foolish to write all of this. But it was so much easier than having a long conversation in person with each of you about why you shouldn’t text me.