Ponies to telegrams to … spam

The Pony Express lasted a mere 18 months. From April 1860 through October 1861, roughly 90 riders linked Missouri and California. It took about 10 days for a letter to travel the length of the trail, and cost $5 at the start of the service and $1 at the end.
What killed the Pony Express? The completion of the transcontinental telegraph line. Suddenly, information that once took a week-and-a-half to be conveyed took minutes.
Earlier this winter, Western Union sent its last telegram. Though the service survived the arrival of telephones, cell phones and fax machines, it was no match for the Internet. In 2005, Western Union delivered a mere 20,000 telegrams.
I receive that much Viagra spam daily.
Now, I personally won’t miss the telegram. I can recall receiving exactly two in my entire life, and both were from my wondrously eccentric godfather: The first was to commemorate the sale of my first short story, and the second was to celebrate the announcement that I was engaged to be married. In both cases, the inherent glamour and romance of the medium was apparent.
Likewise, the only telegram I ever sent was to my wife’s cousin the day before she was married because I was going to be unable to attend the ceremony. She and her fiance both knew that I wasn’t going to be there, and so — once more — the purpose of the telegram was more about style than substance.
Nevertheless, I will miss the notion of the telegram. I will miss it in the same way that I miss certain other social anachronisms that in reality were only a small part of my personal experience, such as the idea that men and boys were expected to dress up before boarding an airplane. The truth is that socks and sports jackets on airplanes were passe well before I grew up. But there is nonetheless something uncivilized about sitting beside a guy in shorts and Teva sandals at 35,000 feet. Airline seats are small and I fly frequently, and the result has been unnervingly close proximity to many strange hairy toes.
Likewise, I miss the concept that we once wrote long, newsy letters by hand — but, again, this is more of an idea to me than it is a firsthand memory. I have neither received nor written a long newsy letter since my mother insisted I write them to grandparents. But there is something cultured and reassuring about receiving a letter in the mail. My sister-in-law in Paris and my wife still correspond this way. They share critical information — health and deaths and criminally bad fashion decisions — via the Internet, but they still ruminate at length about the state of their lives in handwritten letters they craft by pen.
I hope I don’t sound like a Luddite, or like my father who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with computers. Usually I savor new technologies, even those ones designed largely to allow us to watch “Dancing/Skating/Kickboxing with the Stars” without commercial interruption and on our own schedules. But with few exceptions, most technological progress is about doing things faster. More quickly.
As a journalist, I have gone from mailing my manuscripts, to sending hard copies via Federal Express, to sending disks via Federal Express, to submitting the stories electronically. What used to take days, now takes seconds.
In most ways, it is easier. The last thing I want to do is go back in time or live in a world where there is no Internet. Imagine if we had to wait weekly for People magazine to give us the latest dish on Paris Hilton, rather than keeping up with her daily on our msn.com home pages. Sort of makes global climate change seem like a minor inconvenience.
But with speed comes stress.
And with casualness comes hairy toes.
We’ll probably never find a way to marry the brave new world of higher technology with old world civility. But I still have one hope for whatever technology someday replaces the Internet, and it is this: Whatever it is, let it please demand we wear socks.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 26, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.