February 22, 2011

USPS: United States Postal Service

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Dear Readers,

Do your parents know your dorm address? Has your student mailbox been used for anything except to house fliers or packages from your most recent online shopping purchase? If you’re ashamed to have answered yes to the above questions, know that you’re not alone. For our generation, correspondence has become an activity almost exclusive to the digital realm.

At its inception, the United States Postal Service had the ability to revolutionize the world. People in different cities, states, even countries on separate ends of the globe, could be connected through mail. However, recently there has been a massive decrease: Approximately ten billion fewer letters have come through the USPS in the last two decades. Already closed on Sundays, the postal service is currently discussing eliminating Saturday service as well.

The explanation is obvious: technology. Various means of modern communication, including e-mail, mobile phones and even video-chatting, make the transmission of any type of message easier and faster. In an age when iPhones and BlackBerrys seem to populate campus, most people literally have e-mail at their fingertips. Choosing any other means to send a letter — taking the time to hand write it, find a mailbox and wait for it to arrive in the hands of its designated recipient — seems ridiculously impractical.

Having the Internet in your pocket, with immediate access to friends and family and constant news updates, has undoubtedly made life easier. But in the spirit of celebrating our history on Presidents’ Day (well, the nation’s celebration … Cornell decided to sit this one out), think for a moment: In this process of instant communication, are we losing pieces of history? If Hamilton and Madison had been able to text each other, aside from the possibly disruptive effect of a blaring ringtone during the Constitutional Convention, what records and information would not be available today?

In some regards, communication nowadays is even better preserved than it was in the past. Though seemingly lost in cyber space, most forms of e-communication are retrievable. Documentation is eternally preserved, a fact that victims of e-mail scandals, such as Henry Blodget, are all too familiar with. Blodget was a global research analyst at Merrill Lynch until 2002, when his notorious e-mails served as primary evidence for securities fraud charges against him. In his most incriminating e-mail, Blodget wrote, “This stock is a dog. It’s not worth it. It’s going south,” while publicly, his research report advocated for the stock’s “buy” rating. Due to the accessibility of this and similar e-mails, Blodget’s indecency was exposed. This affects us as well. As social media has entered its maturity, tons of journalists, techies and career advisors have warned the public — youth in particular — about over sharing, creating online reputations and “personal branding.”

Coupled with an age when 140-character messages suffice, this lack of privacy is also responsible for letters becoming less personal, with even these brief musings being screened and scrutinized with the knowledge that they can immediately be visible by millions. This summer, the National Archives released nine handwritten letters written to and from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The collection was praised for its ability to provide new perspectives into the life and times of FDR. Through the letters, the reader sees the development of FDR’s ideas as he begins to shape history, writing of the policies he was considering putting into place and his concerns about World War II. Today, we simply wouldn’t have this type of insight into the minds of our leaders because they are not topics one would include in the body of an e-mail. Don’t expect to find letters “sent from Obama’s Verizon Wireless BlackBerry” — detailing his concerns about healthcare reform or stories about convening with international leaders at the White House — years from now in a national museum or a library. Real, ultra-personal sentiments are now primarily reserved for multimillion-dollar book contracts. And as valuable as these more formal memoirs are, they are catering to a public audience and are certainly very different from the intimate tone FDR’s letters take.

Documentation is vital in shaping our view of the past. Handwritten letters provide a certain authenticity and invaluable historical insight into the lives and thoughts of those who lived before us. Through letters, one can possess the intimate reflections of someone who lived 100 years ago. Ranging from the content to the selection of stationary, such letters are indicative of a person’s character, which cannot be expressed in e-mail form. They contain the fingerprints and ink trails of the writer; you may be holding the same piece of paper Lincoln did, creating a link between the past and the present. It is for these reasons that handwritten letters can be valued at up to $10,000. Though the information itself is of import, it is the penmanship and the unique quality of the letter that drives collectors. The future letter collector will only be able to frame printed out e-mails all with the same “G-Mail” or “AOL” heading, as compared to their handwritten counterparts of stained paper and smudge marks. Due to the ability to mass-produce e-mails, in our generation, a hobby like letter collecting — which enables the collector to own and tangibly have a piece of history — will be lost to some extent.

The next time you think to send an e-mail, whether it be a quick note to say hi, a love letter to your significant other or a description of your latest vacation, consider writing one instead. Or, if you want the best of both worlds, Manhattan artist Jason Polan will hand-write your typed letters to be sent to your recipient as an e-mail attachment — a literal attempt to counteract the lost art of letter writing.

Until next time,

Hilary and Jane

P.S. Although our email addresses are listed below, we’d love an excuse to check our mailbox, so by all means …

Jane Mermel is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jmermel@cornellsun.com. Hilary Oran is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She may be reached at horan@cornellsun.com. The Short Hand appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Hilary Oran