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Electronic Mail Might Be the End of Communication

Column by Brett Altschul
Staff Reporter

Essentially no one denies the facility of e-mail, especially at a place like MIT. It keeps students in touch with their friends and family members, wherever they happen to live. Within the Institute, it allows busy people with little chance to see one another to remain in frequent contact. Moreover, it's easy to send a message to a large number of people quickly and without wasting large quantities of paper.

Unfortunately, e-mail is also a perilous tool - a two-edged sword that draws blood more often than one might think. Often, it becomes easier to pulse some electrons across a segment of coaxial cable than to converse with a physically present human. We must be wary of the tendency to while away our time secreted in a donjon of differential voltages, occasionally slipping a PGP-encrypted note under the portcullis.

Some people take the use of e-mail to unrealistic extremes. One common justification is convenience. Too many times, I've offered to write something down for somebody whom I talking to, and they tell me to send them e-mail instead. Usually, this is accompanied by a statement that I needn't trouble myself to write the information now. Then they tell me their e-mail address, as if that's somehow easier to write down.

When pressed to accept non-electronic media, these characters rapidly become flustered. They behave as if they've lost the ability to communicate by more traditional means, as if they don't trust paper any more, unless it comes out of a laser printer. One person said he was afraid that he might lose what I wrote down, yet the notebook he carried was organized with about the same depth, rigidity, and complexity as a corporate tax return. Maybe his filing system just lacked a category for information that didn't arrive via e-mail.

Extensive reliance on electronic epistles can also get people into trouble because e-mail is extremely easy to ignore. Blowing somebody off becomes much easier when that somebody doesn't look at your face, only your username. But it can be highly frustrating (or worse) when you need a prompt reply to your queries, and the person on the other end doesn't feel like typing a response.

Typically, when you hunt down the dilatory e-mailer, they respond in one of two ways. Most frequently, they offer to send you whatever information you needed as soon as they get a chance. It seems inconceivable to these people that you might have wanted a question answered before the problem set was due. Alternatively, they might state that they don't care at all about whatever you needed and that you shouldn't count on them to help with anything. Usually this sort of response comes via e-mail, as it's significantly easier to insult a faceless electronic citizen than a warm body.

Perhaps the greatest problem with communicating entirely by computer is the bad manners it breeds. The casual rudeness of ignoring people's messages is just a single example of the trend toward remarkably thick-skinned, thick-headed Internet communication. Although e-mail isn't the medium of choice for serious flamers, there's no shortage of scurrilous messages sent thereby. For a while, I received 40 to 60 pieces of mail a day from some cretin who went by the name of Poison. Each one attempted to convince me that my law-abiding beliefs were diametrically opposed to the basic content of human nature, using a wide variety of expletives to make the point.

It doesn't really shock me that there are people like Poison out there. I knew that already. What I see as hazardous is the strong tendency I see in computer-centered society to treat this sort of behavior as perfectly reasonable. While mailbombs haven't quite reached the level of general acceptance, the more subtle insults practiced by the online culture seem to go largely unnoticed. How often do people actually pay attention to the boorish behaviors I've described? The many practitioners of these crudities certainly fail to notice them.

The extreme rudeness that seems to go part and parcel with it and the tendency to cut off all other types of communication makes e-mail a perilous tool. While it has a great deal of potential for assisting communication, e-mail could also take a big part in destroying it.