I have grown up throughout my adult life with the online world. I was a teenager in the 1990’s when the web started; throughout my twenties I was creating websites and using messageboards, and in my thirties I was hoovered up into the social media revolution, defined by sites like Facebook and Twitter. But its only now, a few weeks before my 37th birthday, that I’m starting to imagine the unimaginable. Because I believe the online world may not necessarily be the best thing for human society.
I can imagine the gasps of horror of people for saying such a provocative thing. How can we reverse the juggernaut like march of technology? Do we really want to go back to snail mail and a world without twitter? Well, this might sound strange, but in some ways that is exactly what I would like – and for good reasons.
The first point to make about online communication is to note how fraught it is with legal and moral difficulty. Twitter escaped by the skin of its teeth in 2012 when Lord McAlpine threatened to sue 20,000 tweeters for mentioning his name in relation to a child abuse scandal. And even 20 years on from its inception trolling remains a huge problem online, the most recent example being that of the attacks against academic Mary Beard.
For a good couple of years I was a fervent proponent of twitter, blogs and email. But now I’m not so sure. My doubts were first raised when I read a legal website that examined the difference between email and posted letters. Emails are not secure, go through public servers, can be intercepted and faked. Letters, if marked ‘Strictly Private and Confidential’, can be sent from one person to another with a good guarantee of complete privacy. Which is why you can’t libel or slander a person in a private, posted letter – the opposite is true of an email, which even if sent from a sole sender to a sole recipient can still be slanderous or libellous if it passed through a third party server. Should you really be trusting such a legally hazardous medium for the bulk of your communication?
I think instant communication is a lot like instant food, or instant celebrity – it is a little meaningless and devoid of value. Communication that has time and effort invested into it is much more rewarding. Letters have been understood throughout human history and there is a legal clarity to communicating via written posted letter that you cannot get via email. I cannot shake the suspicion that if you are writing lots of letters you are investing in your social life in a much realer and concrete sense than if you are sending lot of diaphanous emails.
So am I a Luddite, then? Do I want to smash the servers? No, not really. I think the current system could be immeasurably improved if everyone used encryption. There are several free options available, including PGP which can offer military grade encryption to everything you do online, completely free of charge. Until something like that happens though I’m going to remain a little wary of the legal grey zone that is email and Twitter. Give me a tangible letter from a friend anyday, one where I can read about his world on paper rather than see it on a computer monitor.