Longtime reader Ann R. threw a long Kurt Vonnegut quote over our transom, with the words “I don’t know if this is true but I thought it was the kind of thing you would like”. “Well”, we thought, “even if Vonnegut didn’t say it, it is full of wisdom and big reminders.” Even better, Vonnegut DID indeed say it when asked his thoughts on replacing human contact with electronic contact. We hunted it down in the September 1996 Technology issue of Inc.
I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.”
Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, “Where are you going?” I say, “Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]
We love the tiny riches Vonnegut encounters in the simple mission of buying an envelope, a BIG reminder of the wonders to be had from occasionally, regularly, forsaking digital for analog and slowing down to human speed. (And for doing things that are not obviously productive.) It occurs to us that these are the very things many of us have missed so much during the long Covid lockdown: small, meaningful exchanges with other human beings, in person. We didn’t realize how much they mattered until they disappeared.
Vonnegut spoke those words 25 years ago and only got one thing wrong: “Electronic communities build nothing.” In fact, they can build A LOT that is tangible, useful, heartening.
He imparts some serious wisdom: It is in “farting around” that we discover and fuel a wealth of good things, including our natural creative expression.
We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something.