Embracing Analog: Postcards From the Middle East

Middle East postcardsHere in Amman, Jordan, personal mail gets delivered painfully slow to post office boxes rarely filled.  My banking and bill-paying happens online and does anyone receive letters anymore? Recall those handwritten messages slipped into envelopes and slapped with a pretty stamp? There’s a paradox afoot that might bring them back from extinction.

The week after Amman’s new airport terminal went live we toured the old one in prep for demolition.  Strewn across the floor were a few dusty postcards.  We picked them up, found others.  A trail of literary breadcrumbs led to a broken letterbox, dozens of cards mostly written in Chinese and French.  We dropped them at the new post office and wondered do we only indulge in penned shout-outs when removed from our daily routines?

In the past decade, music, photos, and print media have all gone digital. Cloud technology and streaming services have unshackled visual media from data disks. Smart-phones are poised to replace cash. As electronic experiences expand, a hunger arises for the old-timey. A simple antidote is within reach: grab a pen and paper and write something, to someone, and post it.

“As we spend more and more of our time in virtual environments – which are still evolving and increasingly immersive – it’s only natural to want to have something to grab onto.  And if you’re going to grab something, it had better be tangible,” said technology writer Frank Rose.

A recent survey by Rose and trendspotter JWT Intelligence found most American adults yearn for relics from more-slowly-lived times – think photo albums, record players and battery-free games like Etch-A-Sketch.  Counterintuitively, younger generations (66% of Millennials and 71% Gen Xers) are as attracted to old stuff as (66%) graying Baby Boomers. (Link to report is here.)

This isn’t simple nostalgia. It’s a worldwide digital-era counter-trend, a yearning for things solid and tactile in an age where, increasingly, our lives are experienced in the virtual.

Track eBay, the cybernetic yard sale, to see my point:  hot selling objects include vinyl records, film cameras, and typewriters.  Even old tech presses wistful buttons: an original Atari 2600 game named Air Raid recently sold for $14,000.

handwritten lettersI’m personally hungry for a letter-writing resurrection.  Today’s paper renaissance says I’m not alone:  global card and stationery sales will top $111 billion by 2016, up 25% since 2011, according to an August 2012 MarketLine report.

Real letters appeal to our search for authenticity.  Ink on paper feels genuine; a counterpoint to digital messages banged out in Arial and Times New Roman. Handwritten correspondence takes more time to produce than email, the process demands contemplation. We linger over composition and choose different words. Marshall McLuhan defined the phenomenon; the medium is absolutely the message.

I told my teenager (who was on Facebook and fielding texts) about my faraway (from New Jersey) penpal from exotic (to adolescent me) Montreal.  Years later, handwritten letters kept my college roommates connected over summer breaks (interstate calls from our parents’ single-phone households being too pricey to dare).

illustrated lettersCould I find an Arabic-language penpal to help me learn to write?  Digital has its benefits.  Google suggested a few Arab penpal sites that seem genuinely about learning the language (as opposed to finding husband #3).

I stumbled across Ziggy Shortcrust, a British blogger inciting a correspondence revival.  She invites readers to send in a snail-mail address and she fires back an illustrated letter. She aims to write a letter a day for all of 2013, bringing handwritten letters back from extinction. Irresistible!

So I sent in my details and her letter bounced back dressed in charming original artwork (images above and below).  To date she’s posted 100 letters around the world, with many replying with their own beautifully illustrated thank-yous. Check this link if you’d like to participate.

ziggy shortcrustSo step away from this screen, and pick up a pen.  Write someone a nice letter: declare your love, apologize, invite, say thank you.  Or just share your news.  Then drop it in a mailbox, it’s the world’s original blogging platform.

Image of postage stamp from Shutterstock.

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