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Edgar Allan Poe on Junk Mail

Monday, 21st May, 2001

Well, I finally figured out what was wrong.

I wandered downstairs at 5 am to write about something or other to post as today's entry in my quest for a million words. I hadn't yet chosen between something or other as I often don't have the faintest idea what I'm going to write about until my fingers start moving over keys. Today nothing happened at all except the appearance of a vague sensation that something was wrong.

Nothing major, I knew that much, but something. No impending doom, no millennial angst. Just something unusual lurking on the periphery of my wakefulness. Needless to say, the mind isn't a very agile creature at 5 am and it took me a while to work out what it was.

I had no mail.

It's amazing how much I've come to rely on modern communication. What would I be doing if I lived a hundred or two hundred years ago? The world was a much bigger place back then with no quick means of contacting people at distance.

When Alexander Graham Bell worked out how to send human speech down a cable he was met with derision. What's the point? Now I talk to my girlfriend five thousand miles away through the magic medium of my mobile phone. It doesn't matter where I am in the world or how far apart we are, I'm only a phone call away.

I can't remember the last time I woke up to find nothing new in my inbox. Half of me feels that it's no big deal; after all there are plenty of days when I get no mail in the old sense, thrust through my letterbox by a probably drenched postman, but that doesn't have the same effect. The other half wonders selfishly why nobody bothered to contact me while I was asleep.

It is no big deal, of course. It's not like the world has forgotten I exist; it's merely that it's given me a chance to sit back and relax for a short while before deluging me again. After all, I'm not someone who requires it. Many people nowadays are using the internet as their sole means of communication.

The lack of hospital beds in this country means that there are a growing number of people living in their own homes but who are unable to leave them. The Englishman's home becomes not his castle but his prison. But at the end of a phone line or a cable connection, lies the entire world, and his fingers on a keyboard become his means of communication. Chatrooms, message boards, forums; he can make his presence felt from the confines of his own home.

What would happen to one of these people if their presence became felt less and less until the point that contact was lost totally? I have visions of a body propped up on a keyboard, slowly growing cobwebs. 'He was just waiting for mail,' reads the imaginary obituary. 'He hadn't realised that his ISP had changed the name of his mail server and so all his mail was piling up somewhere else. He'd have waited forever if Death hadn't claimed him first.'

There's a glimpse into the modern day psyche right there. Is this where society has brought us? The Victorians could nightmare about Jack the Ripper or being buried alive; we fear that nobody will send us mail. Isolation suddenly becomes anathema. What's the official name for the phobia of being forgotten?

I begin to wonder just who will break the silence, who will send the next mail to reconnect me to the online world. I've cut down on the miscellany that used to flood in, so it's not likely to be junk mail though that seems to be one of the sureties in life along with death and taxes.

No matter how many mailing lists I remove myself from there always seems to be just one more that's just added me. I've done the same with snail mail, thus cutting way down on the volume there too. The trick is to return everything unwanted back to the sender with a short note on the front pointing out that the addressee is deceased.

A friend seems to continually receive e-mails prompting him to 'enlarge his penis', though he can't seem to work out who is sending the things. Maybe he got subscribed by an ex-girlfriend with a grudge. Junk mail as a weapon? Lorena Bobbitt wouldn't be impressed, but Edgar Allan Poe would.

'He was driven mad by continual junk mail,' reads his newest synopsis. 'Subscribed to more bizarre listings than he could imagine, he sifted through his mailbox with growing anguish, searching for the one real communication, the one diamond in the rough. His heart swelled... there! A real letter, a missive from someone dear to him. But no! Cruelly rejected, just another junk mail in disguise. The world had forgotten him, he surmised, and, disconnecting for the last time, went slowly, quietly, insane.'

In a world of mobile phones, pagers, instant messaging systems, there is less of a chance to ever find time to be alone. The planet is a vibrant blur of virtual speech bubbles. Maybe the Beatles had it wrong - it's really talk that makes the world go round.

Thank you, God, for this brief taste of peace. Just make sure I have mail when I get home from work, OK?


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