Like It Or Not, You've Got Mail

E-mail brings convenience--but at what cost?

"My letters! all dead paper, mute and white! And yet they seem alive and quivering..." -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese

"E-mail is like coming home at night after a long day and finding 70 people in your kitchen." -- Irish poet John O'Donohue

Last year, we're told, the volume of e-mail in the U.S. surpassed the volume of hand-delivered mail. What an extraordinary development that is. Imagine the billions of connections it represents--the deals proposed, the complaints lodged, the flames fanned, the jokes circulated, the babies announced, the stocks hawked, the fierce tribal loyalties proclaimed (Go, 'Niners!), the old lovers or childhood friends who reappeared, not with a daisy or a crooked grin, but with "Remember me?" in the subject line of an e-mail.

Whether for work or for personal correspondence, the 3 billion-plus messages zipping back and forth each day have become the oxygen of the Internet Age. E-mail's convenience, ease, and efficiency are unparalleled. E-mail can let two people transact business like machines calibrating: "Get it?" "Got it." "Good." No more lingering in hallways to catch the boss for a simple yes or no, no more days of phone tag, no more evaporation of inspiration while you assemble the physical elements of an actual letter, from paper to stamp.

And that's just what it does one-to-one. E-mail ranks with such pivotal advances as the printing press, the telephone, and television in mass impact. "When we were limited by the physical world, we couldn't knock on 2,000 doors. Now, it's a small movement of the smallest finger" that can send everything from wedding announcements to telemarketing spam to the multitudes, says Michael L. Dertouzos, director of the laboratory of computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unlike Marshall McLuhan's "cool," passive television medium, which just spews whether or not you're looking at it, Dertouzos notes that even the most trivial and off-putting e-mail compels you to reckon with it--if only to delete it.

DIRECT LINK. "What e-mail is beginning to do is pave the road for the introduction of industrial democracy," believes Ray Maghroori, dean of the school of business at San Francisco State University. "Ten or 20 years ago, there was no way for average workers to communicate with leaders." Nor even for the top brass to send marching orders to the troops without them getting parsed, spun, and dribbled out through an agenda-laden bureaucracy.

Like other technological advances, e-mail has been attended by some amount of hand-wringing that it will change our very natures, making us less thoughtful, quicker to anger, even less human. Not so far, anyway. If anything, it has let 1,000 new intimacies bloom that might have been impossible any other way, from the online communities of disabled folks to teens who've replaced phone chatter with group chat rooms and e-mailing lists. "Seniors are on fire wanting to learn about this"--to make new friends and communicate with far-flung family members, says Colette Brinkman, a seventysomething volunteer at a Silicon Valley elder-hostel program. Early Internet prognosticators "believed e-mail would be cold and impersonal and [that] people could never develop relationships online. In fact, the opposite has happened," says Susan Barnes, a Fordham University communications researcher.

I like e-mail. I use e-mail. Yet I must admit that I fear that we may be losing some substance in the e-mail revolution. For one thing, I line up with Paul Saffo, who is a forecaster at the Institute for the Future. Saffo likes to think of e-mail more as an infrastructure triumph than a paradigm shift. He likens it to the creation of the postal service in 18th century England. "There was a letter-writing fad during that period that was equivalent to what's happening in e-mail today," Saffo notes, and the letters of men such as Samuel Johnson and Lord Chesterfield became famous. But that's because those letters were saved. With e-mail, "we won't remember a lot of the stuff because it's all evaporating," Saffo worries.

VULNERABILITY. Indeed, despite the illusion of eternal archives of e-mail, huge stores of it get lost all the time as systems get upgraded, hard disks crash, purges are ordered. In Washington today, debates are raging about how much e-mail the federal government should keep for posterity. Would this letter fished from a dusty file a few years ago have made the cut? "First, I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft," wrote young Bill Clinton to U.S. Army Colonel Eugene Holmes in the late 1960s, "but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I have ever been." Clinton did manage to get even lower, but the vulnerability he displayed in this early letter is a fascinating historical record.

Think about the difference between e-mail and a treasured letter. Subject matter is always important--but so is the physical form. How many e-mail messages can evoke the emotions of a life-changing letter--a "Dear John," for example, or your child's first crayoned letter to Santa? The intimacy of the handwriting or even just a signature gives a letter certain added emotional weight. Not to mention that you can tuck it away or crumple it in disgust or reread it on a hammock, or even imagine that a tiny smudge is a dried tear. And then there is the gravity of knowing that a letter took a physical, sometimes even perilous journey. Fate could have snatched one of your most memorable letters from the postman's bag and soaked it in a storm drain, and things--or life--might well have been different. When an e-mail gets misaddressed, it bounces right back, sputtering indecipherable code.

I don't envy bad e-mails their tussles with the dread "mailer daemon." But the image pales in comparison to the rich variety that real letters conjure. For example, letters of war. A soldier tucked into a foxhole scribbling by hand, looking up to the heavens searching for the right words in a letter that could be his last. Thanks to e-mail, those letters are getting fewer and fewer. Beginning with the Persian Gulf War, the military has been making e-mail available to troops. Don't get me wrong. I know it's a tremendous relief and comfort to loved ones worlds away. However, Andrew Carroll, head of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, is assembling a collection of 10,000 letters from soldiers that span the period from the American Revolution to the recent Balkans conflict--including printouts of soldiers' e-mail. "The soldiers today are much smarter and better educated than they were 130 years ago, but the Civil War letters are so profound," he says. "The e-mails didn't match up."

U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington also worries that e-mail is sparking a decline in our language itself. "The letter is an artifact and emblem of civilization," he says. In part, that's because of the discipline Billington feels handwriting or even typing or dictating brings to a letter. It informs the actual content, sharpens it up, imposes some logic and sincerity by its very physical form.

There's no question that the physical process of writing can affect a great piece of communication. Warren E. Buffett, for example, has turned what is possibly the most overly lawyered and tedious category of all human letters--a chairman's annual report note--into a highly anticipated gift to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders.

Each year shortly after New Years, Buffett sits down with a yellow legal pad and a black felt pen and imagines, according to Lawrence A. Cunningham of New York's Cardozo law school and the editor of a new book about Buffett's letters, that he's writing "to his sister, who he considers an intelligent nonexpert, smart but not business-savvy." Buffett invokes everything from baseball to Mae West to illuminate his company's performance and business trends. And the upshot is just what you would expect from a fond brother--humor, respect, candor, and sincerity.

Handwriting also brought out the muse in uber-tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie. On one hand, he had funny exchanges with his friend Mark Twain. But in a memo to himself, he also wrote: "The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery." It's got to be far more wrenching to pen such a statement with a quill than to rat-tat-tap it out on a keyboard. In e-mail argot it might have come out: "Gotta get a life."

HAUNTED. "What we're getting through e-mail," Billington complains, "is the staccato language of air-traffic controllers and computer jocks. It's the end of sentence structure; an extension of shortened attention spans." And sometimes it's an insight to notions, schemes, and reactions better left unsaid, certainly better left unwritten. Even aficionados such as Microsoft Corp. Chairman William R. Gates III get tripped up. E-mail feels private, but during his company's recent antitrust-trial depositions, certain volatile, aggressive e-mails unearthed in legal discovery came back to haunt him.

What I really found fascinating was Gates's defense about a number of e-mails. He said that while he didn't dispute that they were his--such as one asking "Do we have a clear plan on what we want Apple to do to undermine Sun?"--he could not recall sending it or remember what he really meant. Whether you are able to believe Gates or not, could you imagine him claiming that about a signed letter or a handwritten note?

Still, the more I look into all this, the more I realize it doesn't pay to overanalyze the e-mail we're using today. For one thing, if you think the scale is intimidating today, Dertouzos predicts it will grow tenfold in 10 years, upping the average person's inbox to more than 1,000 messages a day. But tech types also tell us that much sooner, today's mostly text and occasional photo attachment will look as primitive as cave paintings. Douglas T. Hickey, CEO of Critical Path Inc., a Silicon Valley company that is providing the underlying technology for all kinds of innovative e-mail capabilities, says that e-mail will soon incorporate not just still pictures but also audio, video, and even voice-mail elements plucked from our phone systems.

For instance, Hickey's 14-year-old daughter spent the summer in Mexico with a church group building houses. Thanks to a digital camera and some of her dad's technology, she sent him daily e-mails with photos on how construction was going. As a parent, I'd trade a bit of staccato prose for the thrill of knowing your adventurous kid is safe, happy, and turning out so well.

So when my e-mail in-box gets packed with unwanted guests, I'm trying not to get too worked up. It has been only 30 years since the first true e-mail zipped from Los Angeles to Menlo Park, Calif.--its message a laconic "login." E-mail itself is evolving, and the way we're using it is evolving. Whatever the technology, we're still humans, dying to communicate, grateful and celebrating when we connect.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.