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E-Mail Should Not Stifle Art of Writing

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

The summer before my freshman year at MIT, my family had dinner with one of my dad's old friends. Three years later, I can't remember most of what we talked about, but one part of the discussion remains within the bounds of my foggy memory. We were talking about how at MIT the use of e-mail was quickly replacing phone calls and regular mail as well.

It's one remark from that discussion that pops up in my mind once in a while. My host that night wasn't what I would call a traditionalist or a romantic - to describe him as an ex-Marine and veteran, which he was, would express his personality better. But when we were talking about how soon people would use e-mail for everything, he pointed out that you would never write a love letter by e-mail or ask a girl out. And at that time, I had to agree.

After years here at MIT, I have of course realized that I was wrong in accepting this limitation. E-mail is a communication medium, and like any other way of communicating, people will use it to discuss whatever they find important in their lives. When the telephone was first developed, people thought it would be used for receiving news, entertainment, etc. The killer application, it turned out, was to let people talk about the same mundane things they would discuss if they were in the same room. We're human beings - it's this basic level of communication that keeps us happy and alive.

So why am I worried? I don't expect people to go back to using pen and paper to send letters to each other. I'm someone who spends much of his time writing, and yet I can't remember the last time I mailed something that wasn't either a bill or a magazine subscription. I also don't believe you can force people to communicate in one manner or another. But I do feel that we should be concerned about how we treat e-mail messages from friends and lovers. As a community, MIT needs to be aware that in the rush toward the casual, instantaneous dialogue of e-mail and Zephyr messages, we may be leaving some values behind.

A handwritten letter is a powerful thing. It demands careful reading, and some reply. This is because you can feel the care and effort the writer spent in composing, writing, and sending the letter. When you read it, you can see how the writer's hand became unsteady during some passages, how the writer rushed through others, and how the person struggled with words at times. All of this is lost in e-mail, and while that's not such a tragedy, the fact that people reading the message forget that fact can be. Too often do people neglect to reply to e-mail from friends, keep in touch with family, and generally keep our connections fresh. Considering how easy it seems to send e-mail, this is particularly ironic.

E-mail transmits a particularly broad range of communication styles. From the formal structure of the written letter to the banter of a phone call to the terse information of a telegram, different people approach the medium with different styles. We need to be sensitive to all these styles when reading and interpreting messages sent to us. When my dad sends me e-mail, it reads like he's paying by the letter; others send me several page-long streams-of-consciousness. I value both equally; both types of writers are extending themselves to me, and they deserve a well-considered, honest reply.

The next time you pull down the menu on your mail program to send out a new message or reply to a friend's letter, think about the opportunity you've been given to keep in touch with the folks you care about. A hundred years ago people spent time laboriously scribing letters longhand onto paper and sending them by mail. Surely you can spend a few extra moments to tell your friend how you're doing or ask how he is.