E-mail is a con. What's more, it's killing office gossip, says Nathan Cobb
Am I wrong, or is e-mail the most overrated phenomenon since goat's cheese? The claims about sending correspondence from computer to computer are stupefyingly grandiose. You would think that e-mail - which is seldom used for conveying an idea more complex than "Let's do lunch" - is the greatest thing since Gutenberg ran off a few copies of the Bible. That's Johann Gutenberg, incidentally. Not guten@mainz.com.

Imagine, for a moment, that it was e-mail and not the telephone that was invented in 1876. Now, imagine that it was the telephone and not e- mail that was developed a century later.

Wouldn't we all be junking our keyboards while touting the phone as the hot new communications medium of the moment? No more typing, boss! We can actually hear each other!

But no. Many of us are thrilled to let our fingers do the talking. The absurdity of this is most evident in offices, where private e-mail systems allow people who sit a few yards from one another to communicate via computer. Which they gladly do. "E-mail it to me," they advise one another. (Or, in the office where I process words, "Message me.") Whatever happened to "Talk to me"?

People who adore e-mail - and there is no shortage of them - love to say that it is convenient. They point out that the recipient doesn't even have to be at the receiving end, that the message can simply be left for him or her. Well, I leave hand-written notes for my wife on the kitchen table all the time, and nobody seems to think that this is a communications revolution. E-mail fans also like to point out that their favourite medium is fast-fast-fast.

But since when is typing faster than speaking? Only when you can type faster than 200 or so words per minute, that's when.

OK: let's concede that e-mail is useful if you want to drop a line to, say, 342 people at one time. And let's concede that it's a relatively cheap way for someone in Boston to leave a message for someone in Kanchipuram, India, assuming that both parties are armed with computers, modems, and the required level of Internet literacy.

But taking a trip through cyberspace to communicate with someone at the next desk, down the hall, or even in a branch office? Please.

You don't have to use such a private e-mail system for long to realise its downside. It eliminates face-to-face conversation and everything that goes with it. Gone are tone of voice, nuance, and individuality. Gone are the audio and visual clues to personality. Gone is any sense of self, replaced by text that looks the same no matter who is tap-tapping at the other end.

Admittedly, none of this signals the end of civilisation as we know it. A few idiot notes a day seem pretty harmless. The problem comes when these idiot notes and this idiot medium isolate people at their desks, discouraging them from looking one another in the eye. When we are cut off from co- workers, our sense of community and common purpose withers.

In the place where I process words, we no longer schmooze or gossip very much. We trade bursts of text so lifeless that cybernauts have invented a bunch of symbols called "emotions" to try to convey feelings. Meanwhile, the people who are paid to worry about such things wonder why morale is low. What this office needs - what this country needs - is more water coolers. And fewer key strokes.

Sadly, it is customary for many journalists these days to publish their e-mail addresses at the ends of their stories or columns. This supposedly makes them more "accessible." What it really does, of course, is make them reachable to the relatively small number of people who own computers and modems compared to folks who own telephones. It's litist.

So please, don't try me at cobb@nws.globe.com. I'll be at 617-929 2961 instead.

Reprinted with permission of the Boston Globe

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