Cost and Conversation

Posted by on 19 June 2013

This morning’s xkcd raised an interesting idea in our mind.  A number of the quotations cited bemoan the death of the old-fashioned letter–a lengthy, carefully crafted piece of writing–in favor of the much shorter note as bringing about the end of fine writing (a couple of others decry the shortening of the news cycle from quarterly to daily for the same reason).  The first one assigns blame quite directly: “when a letter cost nine pence, it seemed but fair to try to make it worth nine pence.  …  We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.”

We find this idea intriguing, and feel there is merit to it.  First, however, a bit of background is in order.  The author cites the cost of postage at nine pence in 1871.  Measuring Worth’s British Pound inflation calculator gives us an easy way to give that sum meaning.  Nine pence in 1871, adjusted for inflation according to the Retail Price Index (equivalent to the Consumer Price Index) pegs that sum at £2.721 in 2010, the last year for which data are available; for the sake of American readers, the XE Currency Converter makes that $4.21 (using the exchange rate of 19 Jun 2013; we don’t feel like looking for a 2010 exchange rate, and that degree of precision isn’t warranted here).  Just to make things easy, let’s call it four bucks to mail a letter.

If a stamp cost four dollars, you may rest assured that we’d write so as to get our full four dollars’ worth!  We’d spend a couple of days noting topics to cover, drafting, getting details down; we’d use small print, and a postage scale to fit as many (double-sided!) pages in the envelope as would meet the weight limit.  The recipient would be well-informed of our affairs after reading it.

Of course, we’d also only have time to do this about twice a year.  We wouldn’t be having a conversation so much as sending a newsletter.  If our reader wanted to ask a question about our latest news, he’d likely save it up for his next letter, which we’d receive some time down the road…and our reply would be similarly delayed.

It would be like playing chess by mail: glacial.

With postage at fifty cents, we might write more often.  Monthly, perhaps.  We’d still be inclined toward larger summaries, but the wait would greatly be reduced, so questions might reasonably be asked and answered a few iterations deep.  Further, writing wouldn’t be such a monumental effort–there’s less need to get every last detail in, as a followup would be reasonably cheap, and if not, there will be another one going out soon enough–so we would have less “at rest” inertia keeping us from starting the letter in the first place.  Granted, it might not be a tome as carefully crafted as Shakespeare, but we find ourselves wondering: what is the purpose of writing?  Is the letter the thing, in and of itself?  Is the accomplishment in crafting a fine bit of prose, committing ornate wordsmanship to paper?  Or is it for the benefit of the reader, that he might be informed of the comings and goings of our life?

We hold to the latter; in all cases, actually, not just personal correspondence.  The purpose of writing is to communicate; therefore, its effect upon the reader is paramount.  No writing–not Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, nor even our beloved Kipling–has any value beyond commercial wood pulp if left sitting stacked on a shelf.  Writings are magical things: they can take us to faraway worlds, inform us of events great and tiny, renew and strengthen bonds with old friends…but only when read.  As with all inanimate objects, they do nothing by themselves, have no moral stature; their character depends upon that of the person wielding them.

A gedankenexperiment: let’s reduce the cost of a letter to zero.  You write it, the post office delivers it.  At this point, it doesn’t matter if you write an essay, a paragraph, or a single sentence; there’s no marginal cost.  If you receive a letter, and want to ask a question, it costs you nothing; further, if you think of a second after you’ve sent the first, it still costs you nothing, so you’ve nothing to gain by delaying the first.  You may as well send early and send often, because the post office isn’t going to charge you any differently.  This move from long essays to brief exchanges isn’t necessarily a loss of communication, so much as a shift in the model from newsletter to conversation.

Let’s make one more change: let’s also take delivery time to effectively zero.  You all see where we’re going now: this isn’t a hypothetical at all, it’s e-mail.  Granted, there is value in the tangible feel of a letter in one’s hands.  The greeting-card industry and postal service won’t soon be out of business.  But those are often special cases; the value attaches because they’re special to the individuals involved, physical manifestations of the feelings that inspired the writing in the first place.  Even in that world, the quick e-mail has value.  The ability to have a real conversation with a person develops relationships far more than any handful of tangible, physical letters is ever likely to do.  The letters show a depth of feeling, but the conversation allows them to share as naturally as if they were sitting next to each other, allows them to explore topics great and small together, allows them to ask questions and get answers that will direct the evolution of the dialogue, allows them to discover each other in ways that crafted essays just can’t match.  Free, easy conversation allows them to talk with each other, instead of talking at (or sometimes past) each other.

So all of this to say: while we certainly enjoy the art of high writing, of a thoughtfully-written letter shared through deliberate effort, we do not regret for even a moment the fact that it has been supplanted as the only, or even primary, means of communication.  Nothing stops us from writing letters even today, and they’re far cheaper than they have been.  But just because we’re not spending hours on each drafting doesn’t mean that we’re not spending hours communicating.

And frankly, we think this communication is far more potent than anything that has come before.


1. The CPI/RPI is only one way of measuring inflation. Another is to compare the base amount to the typical salary of the initial time, then adjust to the same basis of the typical salary of the future time; this measures not nominal price, but the effective burden on the typical household budget. Using that measure, the cost would be £18.60, or $28.81. Just food for thought.

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