Last Friday, Harvard suffered through several hours without access to e-mail thanks to a small lapse in the vigilance of the sundry sophisters, economists and calculators responsible for such things. A minor inconvenience, one would think. However, students reacted with all the calm reserve of disgruntled heroin addicts.
Students' addiction to e-life is nothing new, of course, and few even notice their dependency--until, as during last Friday's three-hour eternity, they're forced to go cold turkey. Only in the twilight of an e-mail blackout does the owl of Minerva first take flight, so it's a good time to consider the consequences of our collective obsession with e-mail.
Time was, most students' correspondence with peers, professors and parents was written. And one need only survey the delightful absurdity of letters included in the Collected Works of men worthy of such collections to recognize what we're missing. Take, for instance, a short letter from the Liberty Fund edition of the correspondence of Adam Smith. The main thrust of the letter from an 18-year-old Smith to his mother becomes apparent in its second and final paragraph: "In my Last Letter I desir'd you to send some Stocking's, the sooner you send 'em the better."
And there it is! At the front of his collected correspondence, the bulk of which is filled with exchanges with Hume, Adam Ferguson, Burke and other leading lights of the day. The letter was written in 1741, and Smith's mother died in 1784--having saved this particular letter for 43 years. Would even the most loving mother save a comparable e-mail? Surely one could print it out--many do--but it would take a truly saintly matron to preserve the cold legibility of computer type on flimsy white paper. Oh, for the days of illegible, personal scratches on parchment!
Not only is e-mail itself unlovely and somewhat ignoble, its advent tolls the loss of infinite opportunities for heroic deeds. "Don't kill the messenger," goes the saying, but today such advice is unnecessary because, for the most part, there are no messengers. If the Greeks had e-mail, Boston would not have its marathon. Likewise, the strong-souled stoicism of our present day couriers, who "come rain or snow or sleet or hail," is becoming obsolete, only to be replaced with a decidedly unheroic form of communication. The midnight e-mail of Paul Revere is not the stuff of epic poetry.
But more regrettable than lost heroism, even more lamentable than the missed opportunities for maternal affection, is the effect of e-mail on our minds and mores. The authority on the latter, Miss Manners, writes that e-mail is simply inappropriate for condolences, apologies, thank-you's and other occasions when only a letter will do: "Even without tearstains, there is just something earnest-looking about those wandering lines and shadings of ink." Some of this apparent earnestness is surely due to the strict laws that still govern letter writing. For all the talk of "netiquette" (which delights Miss Manners), e-mail has yet to succumb to the rule of a similar code: smiley faces and other vulgarities are allowed, and even the most stringent rules of grammar are regularly relaxed.
All of which might be tolerable if such laxity in style were not coeval with loose thinking. But for some reason--perhaps its informality, perhaps the ease with which type is edited (making drafts unnecessary)--e-mail seems to demand less refined thinking. Frequent letter writing, on the other hand, makes habit of formal writing and thinking alike.
Letters are more likely to contain great thoughts and to make great thinkers of frequent writers. Try to imagine Rousseau writing an "E-mail to D'Alembert," or Paul sending an e-mail to the Thessalonians. Or, for that matter, Burke composing an "E-mail Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris." Indeed, most of Burke's published writing is in the form of letters--one wonders how many Burkes we are losing these days.
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