On a plane flying home to Sydney last month I felt a tinge of nostalgia for a time when people used to look out of windows.
As we flew over Botany Bay, clouds hung, silhouetted by a golden pink, the colour of my new iPhone; no one looked. After 14 hours in an aisle seat, I craned my neck to get a glimpse of sunrise, while the woman next to me wrote emails she would send as soon as we landed.
According to a report by CNN last year, 'Americans devote nearly ten hours a day to screen time.' No doubt in Australia the numbers would be comparable. We're a species in love with communication, possessed by a yearning to be elsewhere. This is nothing new.
On a recent tour of Vaucluse House in Sydney's east, I couldn't help but notice — in every bedroom — a writing desk. A block of wood, its surface tilted at 45 degrees, sat on each table and I imagined Sarah Wentworth scribbling away with inkpot and pen 180 years ago. I wonder if the Wentworths went straight to their writing desks first thing in the morning, the way some people check their phones?
We bemoan people staring at handheld screens, hardly noticing the person they're walking into, but this desire to receive news from someone somewhere else is century's old. There were 3000 newspapers circulating in the US in 1860. In 1850 Tasmania had 11 newspapers, for a population of 70,000.
In Victorian England, the mail was delivered up to 12 times a day. And, like us, the Victorians were impatient for a response. Professor Catherine J. Golden, author of Posting It: the Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing, tells us, 'In London, people complained if a letter didn't arrive in a couple of hours.'
In the 1800s flat rates for letters in the US and England meant cheap post, not unlike unlimited texts. Those Victorians might have been impressed — envious? — of Australian teenagers, who send 3339 texts a month, according to a study by Nielson in 2010.
The history of Australia Post is a little different. It was established by ex-convict Isaac Nichols in 1809, and the first post office was his house on George Street at Circular Quay. There were no stamps or envelopes, and the receiver paid a shilling to get the letter, which was expensive, as well as impractical for the many Australians who couldn't read or write.
"My mother goes to the library in Atlanta to borrow books she then reads to my kids in Sydney over Skype."
Unsurprisingly, the First Peoples navigated this, their landscape, with comparative ease. Early European explorers relied on Aboriginals to get messages from the interior back to Melbourne. This was done remarkably fast with a system of smoke signals passed down the miles — all this long before the first telegraph pole was erected in 1854.
According to the Australia Post website, by 1870 '6000 horses were travelling up to 45,000 kilometres a week delivering the mail over vast areas of the Australian countryside'. One of the most remarkable descriptions of mail delivery in Australia is in the racist yet fascinating We of the Never Never, where Aeneas Gunn writes of their mailman's hazardous journey to Mataranka and beyond. In 1902, he travelled with horses from Darwin many hundreds of miles into the hot interior, all the way through the 'Open Downs' described as '130 miles of sun-baked crab-holed practically trackless plains' where 'the last mail-man perished'.
The mailman of the Never Never makes this return trip eight times a year. One can imagine staring out a glassless window, waiting for his arrival. Gunn writes: 'Eight mails only in a year is not all disadvantage. Townsfolk ... can form little idea of the pleasure of that feast ... for like thirsty camels we drank it all in — every drop of it — in long, deep satisfying draughts.'
Perhaps we don't 'feast' any longer, but there's still a fraction of thrill when the phone dings with a message from a friend in another suburb, or a brother in China. Modern technology has opened up a whole new world of connectivity. My mother goes to the library in Atlanta to borrow books she then reads to my kids in Sydney over Skype; previous generations of immigrants never knew their grandparents. Anyone over 40 in the deaf community knows of the isolation and frustration felt before text messaging and Skype.
And I don't think any of us would want to go back to waiting six long weeks for a letter.
Sarah Klenbort is a Sydney-based writer. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories and her articles have been published in The Guardian and elsewhere. She teaches Literature at Western Sydney University and Memoir at Sydney Community College.