Communication: past, present and forever

Volume 8 Number 3 March 12 - April 8 2012

Interpersonal communications have changed significantly as letters have given way to emails, texts and messages. How has the medium changed the way we communicate, and how will archives and museums charged with preserving our cultural heritage document our digital exchanges? By Katherine Smith.

On 19 February 1940, 10-year-old Malcolm Fraser wrote to his mum and dad from Tudor House School in Moss Vale, NSW, that he had managed a straight cut in “carpendary” on his second try, and after only one lesson.

The sweet little letter, in which he also recounts how the school scout pack brought a “tortous” back from an outing, conjures an active boy getting to know the routine of the cricket matches, gym inspections, dramatic presentations and classes making up his schoolboy life.

The letter, one page of loosely spaced cursive on Tudor House letterhead, is striking in its tone of confidence and self-belief, easily recognisable as qualities of the man who eventually became a controversial political figure, prime minister and respected public figure.

As an artefact – now carefully preserved in the Malcolm Fraser Collection in the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) – it tells a great story. Folded into eighths, and only a bit ratty on the edges, it obviously became a treasure to its recipients, safeguarded by them, and kept by the family to become a small but important part of the eventual bequest of Fraser’s papers to the University.

It also inspires a few questions in the reader. Did small Malcolm really feel so confident being away at school? Was he writing to convince himself perhaps? Or to reassure his worried mother?

For reasons like these – for what is revealed in the text and spoken silently through the artefact, as well as in what is omitted from the letter by the writer – personal letters are a premium resource for researchers, and an important part of the UMA.

According to University Archivist Katrina Dean, the UMA documents some of the great Australian events as well as the lives of ordinary people, in addition to being the inner voice of the University, reflecting its successes and challenges.

“Letters in the Archives, which houses many such documents, are eyewitness accounts of the events and lives that have shaped the history of our nation,” Dr Dean says.

Today email has largely taken over from letter writing, but according to Shanton Chang from the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University, the generation now entering higher education, born in the last decade of the 20th century, hardly uses email.

“It’s too slow for them and is really only a means of formal communication. They use Skype, message or messenger, and are adept at expressing themselves in phrases of 70 characters or less over Twitter,” Dr Chang says.

Dr Chang has researched a wide range of features around new communication and social media, from the functional and algorithmic to the sociological and experiential.

He says email seems to have been the transition medium from letters to web-based and other more immediate technologies of communication.

“When we communicate with each other today we’re balancing technology with emotion and the ‘artefact’,” he says. “But an artefact can be something you share, it doesn’t have to be something you hold. It could be a link or a photograph, or a ‘look at this!’ message.

But what will researchers and archivists make of all this online communication that represents our emotional interaction? In the decades to come, looking back on our many interactions, how will they decide what to keep and what to disregard?

“Humans have generated more data in the past 40 years than we have in all of human history heretofore,” Dr Chang says. “There’s a lot of e-waste, and so much of this communication is redundant. Archivists of the future will need to rely heavily on computer scientists with deep knowledge of archiving tasks who can create algorithms to sift through the dross and isolate the important information.

“Although even this, clever as it might sound, means the moments of serendipitous discovery of just reading through letter after letter or diary entry after entry, will be lost.”

He also says there’s a kind of massification of emotion in communication, pointing out that we even have emoticons to shorthand our feelings.

“Our feelings are tending to the factual,” he says. “People are feeling good, bad, angry; finding something cool, funny, wrong.”

There’s not the play of intimacy or urgency that comes when you might write to someone saying you feel say, conflicted in your feelings about a person, or eager but apprehensive about meeting an old friend.

“And when you send someone a picture of something, it’s quite a different experience from describing it. It’s like seeing a movie rather than reading the book. There’s transference of imagination. When you look at a photo or a movie, you see from another person’s perspective. When you read someone else’s writing, your imagination makes a picture in your mind’s eye and your own creativity and reflection are stimulated.”

So there will be more communications for researchers to access, but they may do little to reveal much that is worthwhile, or valuable.

“The skill and artistry of writing about and describing something is certainly being degraded,” Dr Chang says, wondering about the quality of communication that takes place online.

“The act of writing in itself creates a space for reflection.

“When you write a letter you have time to reflect and there are intermediate physical moments: you find an envelope, a stamp, you go to the post office or letter box. There is time to change your mind,” he says.

In terms of communications via social media, Dr Chang’s research has found evidence that while people are more connected, they are also much more isolated than in the past.

“Our relationships online tend to be wide and shallow. Online is about building clubs of like-minded people, creating a kind of tunnel vision with a narrow field of focus. So in our offline lives, we’re not as engaged with people around us. In the US, for example, there is the notorious case of a burger chain that offered free burgers if customers could prove they had defriended ten people. Relationships are so superficial, a friend is not even worth one-tenth of a burger!”

Dr Chang says his analysis of the situation sounds quite negative, but isn’t really.

“It’s just different, and brings gain as well as loss. Sharing is a whole lot easier and the tyrannies of distance have been mostly overcome, as anyone with family or friends living overseas will have experienced.”

The downgrading in interpersonal communications in email and social media might, however, account for the rise of the personal blog.

Leading the Melbourne node of the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) is Stephanie Trigg, a medievalist and professor of literature. The Centre, based at the University of Western Australia, is tasked with exploring the ways emotions have shaped mental, physical and social wellbeing over time, with a special focus on the pre-modern period 1100-1800.

Professor Trigg says the tradition of letter-writing in the past was important to both public and private life, and the making of literature, especially fiction.

“Handwriting gives a sense of connection to the writer, whether in the present, or as a means of touching the past. We know that he or she held this piece of paper, wrote these words, and people hold on to letters, as physical objects in themselves, keepsakes that function as totemic objects which we can touch, smell, and return to over and over again,” she says.

Professor Trigg also stresses that although some letters are personal, their intent can be read in ways that are complex, especially when they are put to play in the public domain: decades or centuries later, letters can evoke the emotions of the past.

One such is a letter from Francis Augustus Hare, a Victorian police superintendent, sent to a Mrs Smith on the occasion of his recuperation after being shot while apprehending the Kelly gang.

Recently acquired by the UMA with support from the Endowment Fund, the letter is an important complement to the growing archive of Kelly memorabilia held in major collecting institutions.

Professor Trigg, who is exploring aspects of medievalism in the Kelly legend as part of her research activity with another ARC Discovery grant, reads the letter as Hare carefully securing his own place in the Kelly legend. Hare does not acknowledge Kelly’s “Robin Hood”-style popularity, or his courteous behaviour to women, but rather seeks to secure his own place within the Kelly legend, as the chivalric saviour of the region.

From his invalid bed at Rupertswood in Sunbury, Hare writes “I told you that the Kellys would be taken within five miles of your house, but I did not call in for breakfast as I said I would, as I had to go for a Dr instead.”

Professor Trigg says the understatement about Hare’s own health contributes to his attempt to establish his “civilised manners”, interpreted from his comment – “how glad you must be that the ruffians are swept off the face of the Earth”.

Hare further aligns himself with the landowners against the Kelly gang: “not that they did you any harm but still it is not pleasant to have them in your neighbourhood who thought as little of taking life as we do of shooting quail”.

“The Kellys are shown not to know the symbolic significance of the gentlemanly pursuit of shooting quail. Hare also expresses great concern about formal manners and the decorum of introductions,” she says. (Hare writes: “My chief object in writing to you is to tell you that Mrs Clarke sent you an invitation to her ball at my request – she desires me to say she hopes that you will not think it rude of her sending you an invitation without having the pleasure of yr. acquaintance”.)

“Hare is at pains to have it known that the apprehension of the gang was not police brutality, but he and his men making the neighbourhood safe in a chivalrous and gentlemanly manner. The letter stakes his claim to cultural and symbolic capital, through his association with the notorious gang, and the emerging legend,” she says. “He is already writing with an eye to his own posterity.”

In addition to her work with the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and her ARC Kelly gang research, Professor Trigg hosts her own blog, Humanities Researcher, where she documents the intricacies of grant applications, teaching and maintaining a research career, but also reflects on dealing with breast cancer, parenting and life in general.

“Blogs are intriguing for their potential to bridge the private and public,” says Professor Trigg. “In many ways they are quite a flat medium, so bloggers attempt to individuate with fonts, images, and graphics – things that create the texture that handwriting brings to paper letters.

Reflecting the growing awareness of collecting institutions about the importance of blogs in culture, Humanities Researcher is soon to be archived in the repository of the National Library of Australia where, like Malcolm Fraser’s long-ago letter to his parents, it will be preserved and used by future generations to evoke the emotions of the past.