Back to the Future or: Today I Wrote a Letter...

Artwork by Stefan Prohaczka

Ever since ditching Facebook and other social media a few weeks ago, I have undergone the strangest transformation. I think I am very quickly becoming part of the slow movement. I am not sure whether this is a product of age, but I have been rediscovering some simple pleasures which disappeared two decades ago in a blur of screen-reading and computer addiction.

I am still required to be glued to the computer on a regular basis, but the return to the natural world has been nothing short of cathartic: Enjoying time with my mini-fox terriers, reading books (and the odd e-book), and gardening. But most recently I am fascinated by old technologies.

A while back we purchased a record player. It has a USB connection to convert records to mp3 files, but listening to the humble record has re-initiated a joy I haven't experienced since the 1980s. The crackle of the dust and imperfections in the sound are brilliant.

For the last three years or so, I have been presenting The Rebel Chorus on 2XX 98.3 FM community radio. A while back we found an old transistor radio in the garage and bought some batteries so we could listen to my colleagues or my wife could listen in to my program. But every morning, the transistor radio, complete with tuning imperfections, is tuned into ABC Classic FM. After decades of neglect, the radio is now a big part of my morning - just as it was when I was a child.

My retro-fascination is not only related to communication, but also to transport. Despite the annoying bits of ACTION buses, I have settled into the routine of catching the bus. The stress of driving is now a rare annoyance - once I overcame my reluctance to substitute the car for the slightly longer bus ride. Palmerston not only has slow broadband, the buses go everywhere but direct to where you want to go so a ten minute drive takes 30-40 minutes on the bus. But once I became disciplined enough to take a book or use the commute to plan or even - God forbid - take the time just to think or dream, it is now reasonably pleasant.

But the most fascinating thing for me has been the rediscovery of the humble postage stamp and the handwritten letter. While researching the role of the Postmaster-General's Department (PMG) in Australian telecommunications, I ended up on the Australia Post website and it reminded me of stamp collecting as a child.

I have been an avid Internet shopper for many years and over the last fortnight I have collected a few items from the post office at the University of Canberra. While I was there, I noticed one of the latest releases for Australia Post's stamps: Technology - Then and Now. I was so fascinated I bought the first day cover and the mini-sheet.

Ever since, I have had a burning desire to write a letter. It has been almost twenty years since I posted a handwritten letter - I think the last time was a job application in 1988. I was forced to write handwritten minutes in the Army up until 1994 when I purchased my first portable word processor - it was an Amstrad similar to this one:

Photo by putput.

I remember how the Battery Commander's red pen was the subaltern's nightmare - reams of paper disappeared in minor errors as the red pen bit deep. Until the Amstrad. As soon as the pen hit the paper, I amended it and printed the update. It annoyed my bosses so much they soon gave up. My peers looked on in envy as they wrote and re-wrote their minutes using the lined page underneath. I had a ready-made format in my portable freedom machine and life was sweet.

But my rediscovery of some of the simple pleasures of slow technology has me baffled. All the years of learning, re-learning and keeping up with technology left me little time for reflection. I still love my technology, but I have a new-found respect for the ways of the past. It appears that there is much more to it than technological determinism and the never-ending game of catch-up: iPad 3 being a case in point.

So today I wrote a letter. Not just one but two: one to each of my grandmothers. You have to pick your audience, and I thought my grandmothers would be most capable of deciphering my unpractised handwriting.

I have been working in the space between  technological determinism and social constructivism for some time. The two extremes (respectively) suggest that technology determines how we do things or otherwise we, as humans, shape technologies and in turn are shaped by technologies.

The retrospective I have enjoyed in the last few weeks has given me fresh insight into all things technological. I am very interested in how we feel about certain technologies, rather than how these make us feel. It's a case of back to the future I know, but with so many time saving devices and less time than ever, I am finding that old technologies offer an alternative to the commercial black hole that is sucking the living privacy out of our souls.

So the next time you receive a targeted advertisement from Google or you feel that your spirit is trapped in the social web, stop, breathe deeply, and write a letter or two. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.