You’ve Got Mail — Again (and Again)

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The daily blizzard of electronic communications makes one nostalgic for a good old-fashionedface-to-face.

Jeff WeinstockTHERE’S A SCENE in the movie L.A. Story where Steve Martin’s character leaves his house to visit his next-door neighbor. Instead of simply walking the few feet between the two doorsteps, Martin gets into his car and drives along the curb, parks, and gets out.

It’s a joke about the lengths to which Los Angeles residents have become enslaved to their cars, to the point of forfeiting their common sense, as well as the pleasures of a short walk. It’s a scene much like the one played out each day in my office cubicle, with e-mail substituting for the automobile.

I am annoyed, confounded, and ultimately fatigued by the number of e-mails I get from people who work within walking distance of me. And I don’t mean much walking distance either. They’re close enough to wad up a Post-It note and hit me with it. Or they could try something that would really surprise me—pay me a visit. I mean, I’m right here. A few feet down the hall, near the temperamental color copier and the secret stash of taffy.

Last month, T.H.E. ran a story about the emergence of unified communications, in which all of one’s communication technologies—e-mail, instant message, cell phone—are routed through a single server. I’d like to unify my communications, all right. I’d like to unify them right out the door—at least for a day or two, so I could connect with someone the pre-millennial way: conversation.

It’s not easy to come out against e-mail. It’s such a useful technology, and can free you up to say things at work that you shouldn’t say out loud, such as, “Hey, did you see the nose on the new IT guy? Hello!” Plus, I should be the last guy to find fault with a device that keeps you sedentary. My remote control could tell you a few stories.

But as a communication tool, e-mail has its shortcomings. You lose a lot of flourishes that convey meaning: body language, cadence, tone. Content gets misconstrued. Hyperbole comes off as mockery; deadpan goes undetected. An intentionally bad joke is taken as an unintentionally bad joke, and your reputation as an office cutup suffers. To keep the recipient from mistaking boredom for aggravation, you have to spell it out parenthetically. Oh, will the workday ever end? (Heavy sigh.)

There’s something to be said for punctuating a remark with an eye roll instead of a smiley-face icon. An eye roll tells you something; a smiley face simply tells you to think ill of the sender. It’s all in the delivery, isn’t it? With e-mail, there’s no delivery.

Of course, there are the more esoteric concerns. Is the communication age really a misnomer? It’s by now a banal observation, but if not all that wise, no less truthful: The great irony is that the technologies that bring us into such easy contact with each other do so at the expense of keeping us apart. We are familiar without being close. It recalls that old Satchel Paige line: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? In our terms, how connected would you be if you weren’t so connected?

Speaking of quotables, I also recall a line that’s attributed to writer Virginia Woolf: I like opening a letter and thinking myself loved.

Fair enough, but a little less love each day between 9 and 5 would be just fine with me.

Jeff Weinstock, Executive Editor

Correction: In our April issue, Toshiba’s Portege M200 should have been referred to as a convertible tablet PC. We regret this error.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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