We received a postcard last week. It looked fake -- or, at the very least, salesy. But in fact it was a picture of some friends, taken by the Thames in London, by a machine or a kiosk or a service that obviously specializes in automating the sending of personalized postcards. The note, clearly written by our friend, was printed in a font evocative of handwriting but obviously not. I imagine that there was some kind of setup with a sign, “Take your picture, write your note, and we’ll print and send your postcard anywhere in the world!”
It was lovely to receive the card, great to see their smiling faces and touching to know they were thinking of us. And, simultaneously, I noticed an odd moment of reconciliation when this bit of paper that I assumed to be junk -- and therefore disliked -- suddenly became precious.
The question of automation in the context of the human dynamic is certainly complex, but in an environment where technology is so accessible, it is one we should all be grappling with. Gary Vaynerchuk says he outsources everything except his relationships -- that, he does himself. And he’s not just referring to romantic relationships; he means that when you tweet him and he tweets you back, it’s actually him tweeting, because it matters whether it’s him or not. It matters whether it’s a robot answering your emails or a human.
And the omnipresence of technology makes the contrast of analog that much more impressive. Our next TEDx event is tomorrow, and we certainly had the option of composing messages in advance for our thank-you cards so they could be preprinted. But the feeling on our team was universal: In the age of technology, writing a card or a letter by hand -- when you so obviously don’t need to -- is a powerful way to say, “You deserve my time.”
I think this sense that there is real value in the analog is partly what’s behind the maker movement. Not everything that can be bought off the shelf should be; not everything that can be automated should be. One of the speakers at our event is L.A. artist Kiel Johnson, who builds cities out of cardboard and runs workshops where hundreds of people join him in producing paper creations. People who aren’t architects, who aren’t builders, who aren’t sculptors or artists, suddenly find themselves absorbed in the construction of a tower or a castle or a crane, suddenly discover that there is a part of them that doesn’t want the computer to do it for them, even if it is faster and tidier.
We are not fast and tidy creatures. We are messy, imperfect, evolving, and the analog helps remind us that it is in fact OK to be this way, that there is joy to be had in embracing it and that there is real value in a non-automated expression of who we are, whether through handwriting or through cardboard buildings.
Next time you are wondering what to get someone for their birthday, think hard about who they are and what they mean to you. Then sit down and write them a letter. By hand. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give.