30 March 2006

The Return Of The Letter Writers

One of the distinctive things you see in the biographies of intellectual figures in the pre-World War II era, and especially the 19th century, is the collections of letters that these individuals left behind. Anybody who was anybody was always dashing off a letter to this leading mathematician or noted author or political figure. Richard Feynman was one of the very last intellectual figures to have done much of this, and his letters are now published.

Then, for a while, this seems to have stopped happening. As populations grew, while mass consumer society kept the number of leading figures in any given field rather small, fame put more distance between the average educated person and the notable people of the day.

But, as in so many things, the Internet has changed everything. One of my blogroll listees, for example, recently send an e-mail to the publishers of the nationally known commercial Mathematica publishers to correct some technical errors in one of their equations. My father, who is a retired professor, has let a couple of publishers of books with geographical sounding titles but few maps know of their deficiencies. I have corresponded with several of my favorite authors, again, by e-mail. We aren't alone in this.

Part of the phenomena is that the Internet makes dashing off an e-mail a relatively easy thing to do. But, that isn't all. Equally important, the Internet, satellite and cable TV, satellite radio, the rise of art house theaters, reduced publishing costs accompanied by rising populations, the expansion of higher education to include many more institutions, and the increased specialization of academe, among other developments, have conspired to increase the pool of prominent people in our society dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s.

It wasn't so long ago that there were 4 television networks in the nation, foreign and independent films were completely unavailable outside half a dozen major cities, a single top 40 list could accurately represent the listening habits of most of America, and the Ivy League and a handful of other institutions had a virtual lock on graduate education. There were a small number of big fish swimming in the pond of the national elite.

The percentage of the population that is college educated (letter writing has generally been a hobby of the educated and comfortable) has quadrupled. But, the number of prominent people in our society has increased far more rapidly. As a result, not only is it easier to write letter again, but the odds that somebody you write to will reply or even take action as a result of your letter has also significantly increased.

This is a healthy development. Elites need not be distant Olympians. A vibrant culture of letter writing is like a parallel processing computer, in which society's maximum effort is devoted to answering worthy questions and communicating knowledge and insight. Blogs, of course, also help this process.

Robert Putnam may be right. Social capital, expressed in face to face contacts between people may be in the decline. But, the Internet is increasingly stepping into the breech and building up a new world of social ties, based not on geography, but on mutual interests.

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