Express delivery

…the trumpet that once announced from afar the laurelled mail, heart-shaking when heard screaming on the wind and proclaiming itself through the darkness to every village or solitary house on its route, has now given way for ever to the pot-wallopings of the boiler.

That’s Thomas DeQuincey, mourning the shift of nineteenth century mail delivery from horse to locomotive. The definitive social history of mail — which has yet to be written, as far as I can tell — will doubtless ride DeQuincey’s essay The English Mail-Coach, or, The Glory of Motion. It’s an incredible and reckless piece, connecting war, class, nostalgia, sublimity, and disaster into an ever-quickening system of transmission.

James Pollack depicts a skidding mail coach

I’ve never read anything quite like the passage in section II when, riding on a night mail coach that is being driven by a one-eyed coachman who has nodded off — and whacked out on laudanum himself — DeQuincey trips out helplessly as the mail coach drifts into the wrong lane, bears down onto a little carriage carrying two lovers, smashes into it, *and keeps going.*

Though DeQuincey is enthralled by the inexorable post horses, and seems to deplore the trains that replaced them, in truth his horses are mechanistic in the first place–prosthetic beyond control–representative of human will that can’t be reigned in. And if steel rails prevent loverslane smashups, they facilitate all the more the inhuman speed that makes delivery a sublime business.

Image of mechanized horse reproduced in Jeffrey T. Schnapp's 'Crash' essay

So transmission keeps quickening. Now it’s so fast, the very notion of delivery is starting to creak. Trains supplanted horses. Planes outpaced the trains. Email outmoded mail. Now, at least for the hungry generation treading us down, instant messaging is nudging out email. Ever notice that it’s not ‘instant mailing?’ When delivery time is whittled down to instantaneous, we seem beyond mail altogether, and we’re even more and even less in control.

Whenever I used to hear a graybeard greet the idea of email with bafflement or hostility, I would be baffled in turn: who wouldn’t want to cut out the stamps, the delays, the deferred gratification of snailmail? Email is free (ok, free with an internet connection and the time it took to set up an account), archivable, portable — email is good.

But now, confronted with instant messaging, I feel like a graybeard. I don’t want to be that accessible. I want windows of privacy, I want time to react, I want to consider considered replies. Combining IM with work has always made me feel rather like an outsourced customer service drone, forced to click a screen within 15 seconds to prove I’m paying attention. Combining IM with friends has always felt wasteful — too many snappy words whose wit wilts as fast as they’re replaced.

And yet, truth be told, just as DeQuincey’s horses and trains were stages of the same rush, so are email and instant messaging. Now that my mail swims a networked world, it made eminent sense to move my email to Gmail‘s excellent platform (privacy qualms and data hostage threats notwithstanding). Exporting email that was hitherto locked up on my Mac was a chore, but doable, and now I can call up most anything that was ever sent to me, no matter where I am. Whenever I’m online a gentle Growl notification flashes a snippet of incoming mail, and Google has added chat right into their Gmail page.

Chat away on Gmail

So… I’m directly patched into a live network whenever I’m online. Yes, IM directly patched. Everything is imminently available. Growl: response. All this mechanized speed — Gmail is my latest surprise machine — and if I’m not careful… if I reply rashly… if I bungle an address…. Or if Google vaporizes my account… or if Gmail should crash altogether ….

The perilous instantaneous — I leave you with a bit from Jeffrey T. Schnapp’s fine essay “Crash (Speed as Engine of Individuation)” (Modernism/Modernity 6.1 (1999) 1-49):

Whether in the logic of amusement parks, modern transportation cultures, revolutionary movements, news media, or the cultural-political avant-gardes, thrill must follow thrill. Which means that accident must follow accident. De Quincey moves from mail-coaches to opiates; Marinetti from cars to airplanes to war; the thrill rider from attraction to attraction; the revolutionary dreams of permanent revolution.

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