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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

E-Mail Considered

Recently, I heard yet another lament in regard to E-mail and letter writing. The theme of this lament was not too different than others I've heard before. The general idea is that we've lost the art of letter writing, and that E-mail is just extended telephone conversation, not worthy of being classified as actual writing. This most recent lament was by Andrew Lam, a commentator on National Public Radio's "All thing Considered". The NPR-published synopsis of his comments is as follows:

E-Mail -- Commentator Andrew Lam remarks on the substance of E-mail
conversation. He says a friend of his complains that although she hears
from him more by E-mail now, she misses him more and knows him less
than when he wrote letters. Their conversation is shallower. There's a
high price for digital communication; language is streamlined and
intimacy lost.

In general, I think that Andrew's comments are interesting, amusing, thoughtful, and well presented. My objection is making E-mail the scapegoat for shallow communication. Once again the medium is being confused with the message.

Shallow Communication in History

Consider the following passage from a letter written before there was E-mail, before there were telephones, and when writing words with ink on paper was the predominant form of remote communication:

As regards that beautiful red coat which took my fancy so vastly, pray,
pray let me know where it is to be had, and at what price -- for that I
have quite forgotten, having been unable to take in anything at the
time but its splendour!  Indeed such a coat I must have -- one which
will really do justice to certain buttons with which my fancy has long
gone pregnant!  I saw them once, when I was choosing buttons for a
suit, in the Kohlmarkt at Brandau's button-shop, opposite the Milano.
They are made of mother-of-pearl, with some sort of white stones round
the edge and a fine yellow stone set in the centre of each.  I should
like to have all my things of good quality, workmanship and appearance!
How is it, I wonder, that those who have not the means would be
prepared to spend any amount on such articles, while those who have the
means -- do not do so![1]

What the above passage proves is that W. A. Mozart could prattle with the best of them -- actually better than many. The fact that he wrote this passage in a letter does not make it any more or less shallow than if he were an E-mail user of today. The fact that the letter survived and made it into a compilation provides a fascinating window on the character of one of the pivotal figures of European music history.

Writing Revisited

I think that we sometimes place too much value on past technology. I recall passages from Sherlock Holmes stories, in which short scribbled notes were dispatched via messenger and could be as terse and grammatically incomplete as the E-mail messages of today. Arthur Conan Doyle's picture of Victorian London showed a communication system much akin to today's E-mail, but with human power rather than electronic power as the transmission method. The advent of the telephone made such short dispatches unnecessary and caused us to erase from our cultural memory the natural practices that preceded it.

Some make the argument that the physical process of writing somehow enhances the quality of the experience and result. I've heard of writers who produce their output using number 2 pencils on yellow tablets. I have to admit that, as one whose third grade teacher suggested I use a typewriter for my homework assignments, that particular physical process has always been (and still is) a struggle. A typewriter provided some emancipation from the bounds of cursive, but a computer with its instant ability to correct those digital miscues proved to be the hammer which broke the barriers to written expression.

Writing Revived

Rather than lament the deficiencies of today's E-mail messages, I revel in this new discovery of writing. I am probably not alone in being an E-mail pack rat, valuing the record of activity and information that my collection of past E-mail provides. I celebrate this golden age of writing which will undoubtedly pass when we begin to leave video-clip messages, recorded on our computers with their built-in digital cameras, instead of taking the trouble to type words on a keyboard. I suspect, however, that we will not escape the written word and that if we do have the equivalent of an "out of time" telephone, we will still use the equivalent of E-mail to express the concepts which require a thoughtful presentation or a well-constructed argument.

During my past fifteen years or so using E-mail, I have received many messages which were thoughtfully written and which would probably not have been sent if it were not for the availability of the medium. I also have to admit that even though I've drafted innumerable E-mail messages sent to mailing lists and fellow professionals, I still don't communicate as well as I should to my family and friends who have E-mail. In other words and to borrow from another writer, the fault dear Andrew is not in our E-mail....

[1] Mersmann, Hans, Ed. Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Translated from the German by M. M. Bozman; London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1928. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1972.

Comments, Questions? Send them to Philip Baczewski.