Love Letters: A Digital Rebirth?

I really just love the whole idea, the whole aesthetic, of beautiful wholesome girls throwing themselves into the art of reading letters from their dear friends and their beloved, giving their messages perfume and kisses, all in the most lovingly feminine and gorgeous handwriting. Perhaps my favorite such vision is this quartet of photographs from the Reutlinger Studio in Paris, titled “The Letter”, featuring actress Jane Renouardt. Isn’t that just the best vibe?

I find it a very appealing vision myself, and not just in romances in the old-timey days, but in a romance in the modern day and a romance in the future, including a far-future space opera. Like Star Wars level, or even beyond.

Only problem is our technology for communication now is all digital, dominated by what I in a good old blog post of mine called the “glowing board paradigm”; we manipulate graphics on glowing boards, i.e. screens, to display information. Romances in the modern day, if you can even call them that, are conducted mainly through text messaging instead of through the writing of an actual letter. Worse still, penmanship is a dead art as far as the masses are concerned, replaced by the “better” interface of typing.

For something like this blog post a keyboard typing out a standard font is indeed better, but for a missive to a beloved is a more personal approach not better? We don’t really have any technology where you can do that and still retain the unrivaled reception time and storage capacity of text messages. Even emails, perhaps the richest format you can send a written message to somebody in with a computer, is rather impersonal compared to handwriting a letter in your own girly cursive, perfuming it, and leaving an impression of your lips by kissing it with lipstick on.

So what is to be done? In the digital age are we doomed to be homogenized into integrating our minds with glowing boards that display fonts someone else designed, bereft of any sensuality? Perhaps not.

Consider that we are already moving away from the glowing board paradigm anyway, with the advent of smart devices like the Amazon Echo (which interact only through voice), and this trend will likely only intensify as we move toward realizing the long-held dream of “ubiquitous computing”, which will demand a profusion of form factors sans screen.

Much more intriguingly, technological advances are enabling screens themselves to become steadily thinner and cheaper, to the point now where we have commercialized smartphones with folding screens. They display them in Best Buy for under $1000 a piece! Extrapolate this trend a few years further into the future, and you end up with a product where the screen is manipulable with your hands any way you desire without losing function, where the required hardware can be folded microscopically and transparently inside the screen itself, where the screen itself is much thinner, perhaps….paper-thin? Hmm.

Microsoft in (I think) 2009 made a video, Microsoft Future Vision, which showcased some of the technologies they anticipated would soon be available, including a non-backlit piece of digital screen that was paper-thin, and indeed functioned just like a newspaper in your hand, only the display could change. Click on the video, and you’ll be skipped right to the part with the paper.

I can’t help but think they were inspired a bit too much by the moving images on paper characteristic of the Daily Prophet newspaper from the “Harry Potter” films, but nevertheless it seems experts believe manipulable paper-thin digital displays will be available in the near future. I’m fond of calling this innovation “digital paper”, as opposed to the analog paper we’re accustomed to.

Where this gets fancy for love letters is that everything girls used to do for a love letter is possible with this sort of digital paper! Feminine handwriting as fancy as it is adorable? Check. It’d be much easier than even the best tablets available today! Leaving an impression of your lips on the message? Well, I doubt that’ll be the foremost consideration when they start manufacturing the things, but it should be technically feasible, and very easy once software developers catch on to this use case. Check.

Perfume? Well, that’d be a bit difficult to do to say the least in a message sent through the Internet from a girl’s digital paper to her boy’s digital paper, but if the digital paper itself, as in the physical artifact, was sent through the mail it would neatly recapture everything an analog love letter could do. The advantage of it being digital is that dynamic content could be included (if written with a stylus the relevant comparison from “Harry Potter” would be not the Daily Prophet but rather Tom Riddle’s diary), and it could be reused if so desired by the recipient, unlike analog paper, which once used must be stored or destroyed.

These love letters could be either displayed forever on the original devices they were sent with or digitally archived for later display, perhaps on other such digital-paper devices. The great virtue is that the very analog act of writing love letters or letters to a friend in your own handwriting, complete with elements that involve physicality like perfume, can be seamlessly merged into our modern digital ecosystem, potentially stimulating a revival in a craft that speaks straight to the heart but is, alas, all but lost.

But digital paper is a sleeper candidate for resurrecting these arts, and making our modern world more human, our affections more expressive, our lifestyles more wholesome. Digital paper features occasionally in my science-fiction stories, helping to bring off the Jane Austen in space vibe, and I suspect it may feature in our real-world future as well. The future often reflects the past, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Our Internet reflects the telegraph much more than either do the intervening technology of the telephone. Our emerging gig economy reflects the independent work model of the 19th century than either do the intervening practices of Fordism. Might our future when it comes to missives of love and friendship reflect the handwritten notes of the 19th century much more than either do our texts on glowing screens? I suspect it will. Watch this space.

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