Real Snail Mail: Is there space in our speed obsessed world for a service that takes time?

The Real Snail Mail investigation challenges engrained social paradigms of speed and efficiency, underpinned by one key question: Is there space in our speed obsessed world for a service that takes time?

boredomresearch designed the concept for a standard communication system (email) to have a biological interruption (live Helix Aspersa snails) – creating a time delayed and unpredictable email service.

The first web prototype was presented at SIGGRAPH2008 Slow Art Exhibition, attracting 28,432 attendees over 5 days. This exhibition explored technology’s impact on society, professional development and education, through the filter of slowness.

Following the success of SIGGRAPH, boredomresearch was commissioned by international institutions to produce an installation version of RSM. These exhibitions aimed to facilitate cultural debate around the interrelations between technology and quality of life. Exhibitions includeD:

  • Process as Paradigm in LABoral Centro de Arte y Creacion – the European centre for art/science & technology.
  • Gateways: Art and Networked Culture exhibition in KUMU Art Museum – Estonia’s most important contemporary arts venue.
  • SOFT CONTROL: Art, Science and the Technological Unconscious exhibition for KIBLA, Maribor, Slovenia.

The Real Snail Mail project engaged these international institutions with the research, significantly contributing to their audience numbers. The work facilitated critical debate regarding the impact technology has on society, allowing institutions to inform and often change the perspective of their audiences. Notable audience groups include those in professional development, education, business and political sectors.

The project received worldwide media coverage including TIME Magazine, BBC News, Daily Planet Discovery Channel and an article in the CNN technology section, which described the project as “one of the most fascinating pre-incarnations of the Internet”.

Real Snail Mail was discussed in a large number of critical texts and publications by leading cultural contributors keen to instigate discourse around the importance of rigorous thinking in relation to technological impact on society. This includes a review in Dvice and academic papers by Leshed, Sengers & Neustaedter.

Real Snail Mail has maintained a high number of unique website visits: 4,345 Aug-Dec 2010; 19,200 in 2011; 20,985 in 2012 and 10,303 Jan-Jul 2013. Combined with public exhibition, this period of sustained engagement has given rise to cultural reflection.

Throughout this period RSM users have reflected on their experiences: “Thank you for showing us the bright side of our own technology”; “What an ingenious way to make (at least some of) us stop and think about how absurd our lives are getting”; “Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to receive a thank-you email from a friend in response to an email I sent him over four years ago by Real Snail Mail”; “it forces your emails to take on an entirely new significance” and “It is a constant reminder to take life as it comes and not will it to happen faster”.

Research references

  • Isley, V. and Smith, P., 2006. Real Snail Mail RFID concept and design commission for Tagged exhibition, 6-21st October 2006, London: Space Media Arts.
  • Isley, V. and Smith, P., 2006. Concept, Artist Presentation and ‘Designing the Not Quite Yet’ workshop at the 20th Annual Conference of the British Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Group, Engage Conference 11-15 September 2006. London: Queen Mary, University of London.
  • Isley, V. and Smith, P., 2008. Real Snail Mail Website Prototype, exhibit at SIGGRAPH2008, Slow Art Gallery Exhibition, 11-15 August 2008. USA Los Angeles: ACM SIGGRAPH2008 Electronic Art & Animation Catalog  ISBN: 978-1-60558-344-0, doi: 10.1145/1400385.1400438
  • Isley, V. and Smith, P., 2009. Presentation of RSM experimental installation at the British Science Festival 5th – 8th September 2009.
  • Isley, V. and Smith, P., 2010 – 2011. School engagement program for LABoral, Centro de Arte y Creacion, Gijon, Spain.