Distance Learning

Document generated by physiokinetic impact print, ie, manual typewriter

Gina and I recently received a letter from my friend and colleague Kent Peterson, who lives in Eugene, Oregon. I mean mechanically received a letter, on paper, generated by a physiokinetic impact printer (in other words, a manual typewriter), and shoved into the box at my front door by a uniformed employee of the Post Office. It was in an envelope, addressed by pen in Kent’s hand, and I trudged upstairs with it and slit open the envelope with a knife to read the letter.

Kent is no whining Luddite. He maintains a book review blog, another blog on bicycling, and a moderately active Twitter account. As I recall, he is a former software engineer who gave up the immodest remuneration it awarded him to live not a simpler, but a more complex, life: one where connections were immediate yet unmediated and based on improvisations over the cadences of personality. A more direct life, harmonized to family, neighbors, town, the air, and the land, and one in which he’d have more time to read.

Now words are code, and writing is code in recursion: sounds, which we devised over the millennia of our evolution to encode our responses to the environment, themselves re-encoded in little marks on a plain background. Yet oddly enough, that double encoding provides the most direct pathway from soul to soul that we have ever devised, less passionate perhaps than music, but far more precise. Perhaps Kent feels that further encoding that already-doubled code to transmit it by wire or wave too often just dilutes it. If “the medium is the message,” as it sometimes really is, then the digital medium seems always to be telling us to hurry. I sent that email ten minutes ago; why hasn’t he answered? Something we never ask ourselves when we send a letter by post, or are thinking to do so.

We had asked Kent to review a science fiction story my wife has written–he is an aficionado of sci-fi. He requested that we switch our communications to a more human-scaled channel, to read each other’s words on paper, at a bodily pace, holding the texts in our hands as one does a printed book. Not slumped before the glaring screen of a laptop or a phone, constantly prodded by beeps and boops and insistent distractions. This sounded good to us; we spend much of each day in front of the demanding bluish gleams of modern hurry, and could use a break. I put the story in an envelope, and threw in a paperback copy of my second novel. Family Ties, even though it’s not of Kent’s favored genre.

In due time we received his comments–generally favorable–to Gina’s story. My novel is still inching its way upwards through his bedside reading bookpile.

Like Kent, I travel primarily by bicycle, transit, and shoe (though I eschew his beloved kick scooters). I have spent decades immersed in a world of computerized hurry, serving up portions of my passing days to the follies of commerce. (I don’t reject commerce, of course–I am trying to sell you my books through this website–but I reject its centrality.) Now I work in a library, a building full of computers, to be sure, but full also of paper books, with comfortable sofas scattered about and no one urged on their way if they haven’t finished their chapter in due time. I manage an adult literacy program, as I have mentioned in other posts, matching highly literate folks with their less-practiced neighbors to help guide the latter into the world of reading, writing, and speaking. They sit face-to-face in the library and learn together, though each is learning something different. This is the healthy opposite of “distance learning.” Distance is what words were made to overcome. The distance between hearts and minds, not just the distance between faces.

Kent’s letters come to us from his very hands, bearing, if we could see them, his fingerprints. Better far than standardized globs of black on a flatscreen, no matter how sharply resolved. Every human’s fingerprints are utterly unique, never to be repeated while the universe exists. Likewise every typewriter, as any cop knew in the ancient days of thirty years ago.

I’ve still never met Kent face-to-face, but now, we have touched.

Rick Risemberg


  1. Wordsmith you are! Word is a most magical connection between two souls. True that!

    I disagree the digital age rushes us… you feel rushed but you can change that. The digital way sets up Face-to-face meetings and that’s the truest form of connection between souls. That’s how your literacy program works and I wonder what Ken like in person? Have him over for tea?

    1. Yes, you can resist the rush, but the system is consciously designed to rush you…and I think the lack of physicality engenders an urge for real-world contact in us that is re-channeled into digital frenzies. I use digital (when I can) to set up corporeal encounters. My literacy teams would not work nearly so well over Skype (or whatever; not singling Skype out except as representative). Talking heads are not the same as a real, warm, breathing person sharing your space. Would you want me to read at your event via a widescreen set up on the stage? Wouldn’t be the same, would it? Digital contact flattens our interactions, and makes them more generic. Everything, from ads to love notes, comes to me on the same screen. Kent’s letter was inescapably unique and his.

      Obviously, I use digital communications, since we are discussing this on a blog. But it’s an adjunct to physical presence, not a substitute. A decent way to make appointments and so meet in the material world

      Here’s an amusing and somewhat lascivious perspective from the 1600s:

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