We’re Losing Our Cultural Touchstones

Ronald and Nancy Reagan weren't writing love emails to each other

by Meredith Whitmore | 10 Mar 2016 at 5:07 AM

You, and roughly 4 billion other people with computer access, received email this week. In fact, it’s likely you’ve received email within the last half hour. The next time you read it — if you read it — try to describe the experience.

Do the senders dig meaningfully into their memories and observations to help you visualize and feel what they express? Do they share their innermost thoughts and emotions? Had you been waiting, maybe longing, to read the emails you received?

For many, the answers are resoundingly no.

Email lacks warmth, which is why, when one compares email to letters (those seemingly ancient pieces of paper that friends, lovers and family members used to send and receive from one another), most people say they far prefer letters for personal communication. Entire books and poems are devoted to the vintage craft of penning letters.

But do we still write them? No. In 2011, the United States Postal Service reported that letter writing was at an all-time low. The numbers have not increased, and Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat (which is designed to erase memories), incessantly compete for our distracted attention.

Do we, as a culture, understand what we are losing to technology?

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Maybe we can gain perspective from a former first lady. Nancy Reagan’s recent passing is poignant for multiple reasons, and unlike many today, she understood intimately the impact of a personal letter. Throughout their 52-year-long marriage, President Ronald Reagan sent her countless love letters, many of them handwritten. She in turn wrote notes and hid cards for him to find when they were apart.

The effect on their relationship was inestimable. Nancy once said of her husband, “If either of us ever left the room, we both felt lonely. People don’t always believe this, but it’s true. Filling the loneliness, completing each other — that’s what it still meant to us to be husband and wife.”

When President Reagan was saying his “long good-bye,” the family’s euphemism for Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy compiled those letters and reflected on the life she and her “Ronnie” had shared. She might have re-read them to her ailing husband as well, as a means of reconnecting him to their life together.

But if Nancy and her beloved Ronnie had exchanged love emails, would the files have been saved and compiled? Would the messages have been as cherished?

It’s not just the art and pleasure of letter writing that our culture is losing to technology, either. Though people take more pictures than ever before — an estimated 1 trillion in 2014 — the majority of them nowadays are selfies. The selfie has so consumed the culture that the word was added to the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

Selfies, like email, aren’t always the "bad guy," since technology itself is neutral. But the way our culture revels in them illustrates the erosion of another traditional form of creating and maintaining memories: photography. Rather than paying attention to a picture’s setting, composition, mood or subjects, we now focus on snapping frames of our trout pout or smirking mugs. Are we more interested in getting a good angle of ourselves or experiencing the event that we are (sort of) participating in and the friends and family around us?

Some experts go so far as to say that selfies and other smartphone pictures distort our memories. Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University in Connecticut, told NPR in 2014 that she sees what she calls the "photo-taking impairment effect." In other words, "As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory. Anytime we kind of count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own."

Maryanne Garry, a psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, also told NPR, "I think that the problem is that people are giving away being in the moment."

She believes that people are paying less attention to the things they are photographing. Then, rather than carefully organize their digital photos, as photographers did with tangible prints, "they've got a thousand photos, and then they just dump the photos somewhere and don't really look at them very much, 'cause it's too difficult to tag them and organize them," she says. "That seems to me to be a kind of loss."

The answer to our eroding cultural traditions of letter writing and photography, of course, is not to stop taking selfies or sending email. That’s impossible. But maybe the answer is to be more engaged with one another instead of technology. And maybe we should make the effort to pick up a pen and stationery, and maybe an actual camera. Why deprive our culture of the memories to be made?

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