With a furtive eye on the clock, I scan through my mail index quickly, so as not to be more than ten minutes late to my next class. Amid the usual assortment of friendly "letters" I notice an unfamiliar name, a certain Debbie Mayer from the University of Wisconsin. After a brief description of her life, she asks, "Write back if you want to. It would be cool to have an e-mail pal."
I've never even heard of Debbie, and I certainly never gave her my e-mail address! So how did she reach me? E-mail operates on a larger worldwide communication system which is known affectionately by its users as the "network."
Thousands of "cute" messages are forwarded all around the network every day, and each message lists the addresses of all of the people who have previously received it. Debbie, it seems, got my address when I sent one of my friends a history of computer cow images three weeks ago. Little did I know back then that my life as an e-mail social butterfly had begun.
The whole incident was very puzzling. My first reaction was to laugh and marvel at the powers of electronic communication. E-mail has brought people closer to one another than ever before; anyone can instantaneously connect with virtually anyone else on the globe. Inexpensive and efficient, e-mail has shrunk the world even further. Although networks often have their share of logistical problems (as we at Harvard know well), the network's record is still invariably better than that of the post office.
E-mail isn't the first innovation to shrink the world. The fax machine has expanded the potential for instant global communication. The fax, however, is used primarily for business, while e-mail is the basis of many casual relationships.
At universities, network accounts are free, which encourages student use. Richard Steen, the director of network services at Harvard, reports that 72 percent of undergraduates have registered for accounts, and 81 percent of first-years are already on-line. Larger schools, like Boston University, have as many as 11,000 to 12,000 accounts in use, the majority of those belonging to undergraduates. According to Ken Wenzel, a programming analyst for BU, e-mailers are logged in at ungodly hours, with a substantial number of users on the network from 12 to 7 in the morning.
College students' massive use of the network helps to create a kind of generational unity. No one from the University of Wisconsin would have invested the time and money to make new friends by calling a random Harvard phone number. Only with e-mail was this type of communication possible.
Debbie's letter was exciting. The possibilities of meeting new and interesting people through e-mail was exciting. The chance to expand horizons and to branch out globally was exciting. But most promising was hope for the day when the dream of a unified humanity might be achieved through the glories of the modern computer world.
Hold it. Before the rapture of a computer-based utopia completely overtakes me, I must ask an important question: Why is Debbie spending her time writing to a stranger with whom she has no connection whatsoever? Is life that rough at the University of Wisconsin? Possibly. But the more likely reason, no doubt, is the addictive quality of e-mail.
Once logged onto the network, people have a tendency to lose themselves in endless exploration of the vast electronic terrain. The enthralling, expansive nature of e-mail brings with it isolation and reclusiveness.
While the network joins people and ideas from all over the world, the individual using its resources is completely alone. In the basement of the Science Center, blank faces stare for hours into the computer screens. Occasionally, a humorous message forces a chuckle from one of the terminals, an oasis of human emotion amid a desert of android typists.
In the excitement of global communication, it's easy to lose touch with local reality. As I sat checking my mail the other day, somebody at the terminal next to me called my name. I was shocked to see someone from my proctor group, whose familiar face I had completely overlooked though she had been sitting only a foot away from me for at least ten minutes.
E-mail projects an illusion of personal communication. Assuming a persona is part of the technical process of using an e-mail account. Every time you use the system, you must supply an alias and a password. You are no longer yourself--you're a computer assigned eight-character-or-less string, which, if you find favor with the computer gods, will actually bear some resemblance to your true name.
The password creates a delusion of self-importance. Although 11,000 of your closest friends may be on the network at the same time as you, your password deceives you into thinking you have been granted privileged access to a new high-tech world.
The truth is, life in this world is not only isolating--it's also impersonal. E-mail "letters" might allow for the free expression of thoughts and emotions, but they simply can't compare to traditional communication. Because much of the electronic mail system is an illusion. It seems easy to make real acquaintances simply by "talking" to people over the network. But e-mail leaves no lasting aural or visual record of a person. When you shut off your computer, your electronic personality vanishes like dust in the wind. One day a computer program will surely be able to simulate an e-mail conversation even more "real" than ones carried on by humans.
E-mail has helped me to reduce my phone bill, but will never eliminate it completely--sometimes, I crave the sound of a human voice. A computer can't duplicate the distinctive handwriting in a "snail mail" letter. Messages pile into the e-mail "mailbox" mechanically, their arrival times their primary distinguishing characteristics.
This, however, is not a tirade against e-mail, the newest enemy set to strip our society of emotion. Its very impersonality may prevent electronic mail from becoming the sole method of human communication. People still see each other even though they have the telephone. The post office still handles a fairly sizable volume of business.
The network is a fantastic tool which, when used correctly, certainly improves communication. If e-mail is able to bring together people who would otherwise never interact--which it does--then it serves its purpose. E-mail should keep people connected; it should not become an independent activity.
The nearly 100 people who are logged on at four in the morning should get more sleep. Compulsive e-mail users should be careful not to develop their personae at the risk of detracting from their true personalities. Our control over the network allows us to enjoy the fruits of the modern age. We must not let it control us.
With that said, I think I'll write Debbie a response. Due to the network's great efficiency, I can't use the excuse that her letter got lost in the mail.
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