Sunday, April 20, 2008

Increasing Communication – Declining Communion

An interesting article from the British paper, The Guardian caught my attention recently. It bemoaned the fact that a large number of post offices were closing in the British country side, particularly inconveniencing the elderly for who the post office was more than a place to buy stamps and post letters; in deprived urban areas, post offices are banks for local people and crucial sources of benefits. In rural villages that have lost schools and every other shop, it is often the last local service left standing. The post office is the last community hub left.

India’s villages haven’t got there yet, but our towns probably have. We don’t have any more community hubs left any more and a sense of community in the bigger cities is all but gone, surrounded as we are by walled houses, often enclosed by high gates and fences and manned by dogs and security guards. In fact the one thing to be said for slums is that because of their forced deprivation of space and privacy, they have to create communities to manage their clutter and chaos.

As in many other cases when environments change rapidly, the elderly are perhaps the most affected. In the area where I live, in the parks that still fortunately still survive in some numbers. They throng the neighborhood parks in the evenings and some times in the early mornings but though they have the companionship of their peers, they appear lonely. The young are missing as they are busy with their own pursuits; some times grand children are to be seen, but this strange bonding is often the bonding of the bizarre – the grand parents are stand in baby sitters for their sons and daughters and baby sitting is the chore that they often perform as a retainer ship for their board and lodge.

The younger lot often has set up shop in platforms like Facebook or Orkut. There is a community for folks who live in my community to meet up on line or Orkut and Facebook and BigAdda and all the rest. Whether the online communities will really amount to any thing, I suppose only time will tell, the research is too young yet for us to have any clear findings on which to base conclusions.

Coming back to the closing post offices, one of the key reasons cited for their closing is the fact that due to the ease and cost of sending e mails, no one or virtually no one in the UK is writing conventional letters, sticking stamps on them and then trundling along to the post office to post them. For some, real time communication is every thing and instant messaging has begun replacing e mail which is slowly becoming passé. Similarly another key revenue stream for the Post Office, the greeting card business in the holiday season – with people sending fewer and fewer Greeting Cards.

I do not know how many of us still have old letters – papers yellowing with age and fragile; but billowing with emotions and over flowing with the fragrance of friends, love and laughter. Although I too have moved with many others to the electronic era and write few letters myself, there is still the sense of mourning at the passing of an era that I at one time have known and loved. There are letters that on a given day I might still take out and read – letters with a hand writing, some smudged ink and perhaps a fraying envelope but encased lie within words that inspired and encouraged and conveyed hugs and embraces that physical distanced dis allowed but an envelope with a stamp and a heavy footed post mark could still convey.

Can a print out of an e mail do that or an emoticon on an IM? Sure they have their uses and are fast, reliable and robust for business communication. But outside of Business, though e mail is not going to go away any time soon if ever, I am sure that an e mail print devoid of signatures, distinctive hand writing styles, words and letters can never replace the sense of communion and community and friendship that can really nurture on life’s long and often lonely journey.

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