Monday, April 11, 2011

Networks of Correspondence

My friend David sent me this link to a video on the Transition Town movement. How communities can prepare for a radical decline in energy availability is surely a question that deserves great attention. There are many types of communities, though: not all are constrained to a small geographical region.

Advances in communications technology have been at the core of the transformation of community during the industrial revolution, from the telegraph through radio and telephone to the internet. But long distance communication goes back to ancient times: the famous post office motto is a description of ancient Persian letter carriers by the ancient Greek, Herodotus. It is quite conceivable that our modern person-to-person media of telephones and internet could well collapse as the resources required to maintain their infrastructure become increasingly scarce. A worthy challenge and opportunity is to find a way to use our present infrastructure as a scaffold to reconstruct the more robust system where ideas are exchanged via the physical exchange of ink on paper, via the post office, via snail mail.

There are many reasons to exchange letters and many general types of relationships with the people whom one might write to. The primary sort of exchange relationship is with people one knows primarily face to face. Perhaps a family member has moved away, or perhaps one maintains communication with people one has met while traveling. At the other extreme, one might exchange letters with representatives of various widely known institutions such as departments of the national government.

Between these extremes are networks of people with some common interest. e.g. scientific or artistic. Modern science was born with the rise of published printed journals that could broadcast ideas across large international communities. These journals grew out of networks of exchanged letters, which continued to thrive alongside and as a foundation for the printed journals up until the era of email. A beautiful vestige of this practice is the archive of Edsger Dijkstra.

Another recent technology that may well not long survive the resource peak is the photocopier. Nowadays there is a quite smooth spectrum of printing technologies, tailored for print runs of every size. Simple printing technology is good for large numbers of copies where the large set-up time can be effectively amortized, so that may well continue, as it has, for centuries. The real ferment of fresh thinking doesn't happen at that large scale, though. Vital culture can happen on a limited budget, but only with effective structures in place to make the best use of those resources.

Three practices necessary to an effective percolation of ideas through a network of correspondents are: a distributed set of address books, sufficiently cross-linked; a regular practice of letters being forwarded so that a single letter has multiple readers; and a regular practice of copying letters or extensive parts of them.

Keeping track of the locations of people has some challenges. People move from place to place at various time scales and it is not efficient to broadcast each move to every possible correspondent. There are also safety issues with broadcasting addresses too widely. To send a letter will generally involve several steps of forwarding, each step facilitated by a correspondent incrementally more intimate with the addressee. Some system is needed whereby copied and forwarded letters include enough network tracking data so responses can be sent back to the original author.

In the best of worlds, such a network of ideas being exchanged would already be up and running as internet and telephone systems crumple. Bits and pieces of such older systems still exist, e.g. telephone trees as an earlier form of an email distribution list. While our advanced technologies continue to function, these more primitive and resilient systems will have the form of a Creative Anachronism or some similar entertainment. But, like amateur radio or backyard gardening or bicycling, snail mail networks could very well take over as a core cultural practice, and on an almost unforeseeable time table, as resource constraints make it difficult or impossible to recover from the various inevitable failures of the more advanced technologies. Resilient technologies have failures too, but recovery is less expensive.


  1. Interesting points. Thoughts that come from this: the Internet was originally intended to be a non-centralized system that would function in situations of catastrophic collapse, i.e. nuclear war. When you talk about going back to networks of snail mail, I think about a middle way approach, such as "what can we do to localize Internet infrastructure such that it works whether or not international backbones etc are functioning.

    Another thought, more to your point: what about the availability of ink? Yes, ink. That's the kind of thing we totally take for granted that it's going to be imported from . . . ? So local ink might become important. And again a middle path might be finding local sourcing for all manner of printer inks, refills for those zillions of printers we have, and which really last a long time if we just have ink.

  2. Jim, as I have been reading the Archdruid's blog for the last year or so, I have been ruminating along these lines, too.

    I had a CB/ham radio antenna installed at my place, and bought a small CB unit. Will eventually get a ham radio too, and join a local ham radio group. Radio technology has proven to be pretty resilient. I recall reading that after the big earthquake in China a few years back, ham radio operators were crucial in helping emergency workers and displaced people connect with one another.

    I can see where a combination of mail & radio could help with networking of non-local communities.

    As our Druid friend has discussed at length, it is unlikely the internet will have much resilience once the energy needed to run server banks (not to mention the parts supply chain) become too expensive/scarce.

  3. It's really the parts supply chain where I see the big problem with sustainability of cyberspace. I worked many years in the semiconductor industry and have a pretty good idea of the miraculous level of technology incorporated these days in computer chips. Chip factories are huge investments and involve a large number of expert engineers to keep the process running. The sales volumes have to be huge to amortize all the fixed expenses. If people just hang onto the devices they already have, the chip factories will disappear, and then the existing devices will become irreplaceable. Sure, they'll last five or ten years. After that... things could get interesting.

  4. The Mennonite and Amish communities had what they called chain letters. The letters were sent to one alcove or community, read aloud at church and then folded up and sent right back out to the next community. Then our community would send out a monthly letter and it made it's rounds to all the other local communities. Often times, other communities would hear of some tragedy with in ours and come by horse and buggy with provisions, if they were close enough. Those further away would later send their community letter stating they were praying for us.

    1. Beautiful! I hadn't heard about this!