In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in the United States. The message was: WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT. In the early 1970s, a young programmer named Ray Tomlinson sent the first e-mail. In contrast to Morse's, Tomlinson's message was less apocalyptic. Just a random series of capitalized letters, the message actually said nothing at all—Tomlinson didn't feel the need to mark the moment, he just wanted to check that the program worked.
For John Freeman, former Indy contributor and current author of the incisively critical The Tyranny of E-mail, the distinction between the two virgin messages is crucial.
"Previous generations," writes Freeman, "however giddy they became about the best technology, did stop and think."
- The Tyranny of E-mailJohn Freemanhardcover, Scribner256 pages, $25.00
The "gibberish" contained in Tomlinson's first e-mail, according to Freeman, is representative of how the modern generation takes technology for granted. He states: "It's about time we asked ourselves a more articulate question: What have we wrought?"
What we've wrought seems to be an addiction to the Internet, specifically to e-mail: In 2009, the average corporate worker will spend more than 40 percent of his or her day sending and receiving e-mails. To boot, we spend more time with our computers than we do with our partners.
"Ironically," Freeman points out, "tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend even more time apart."
Freeman urges us to be mindful of the cultural dystopia inevitable with e-mail.
"The creeping tyranny of e-mail is a symptom of how out-of-control the situation has become," he writes, adding: "The tyranny of e-mail has also entered a feedback cycle that makes it harder to reflect on how bad the situation has become. Spending our days communicating through this medium...we are slowly eroding our ability to explain—in a careful, complex way—why it is so wrong for us."
Freeman weaves his critique with a history of correspondence, including the creation story of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as the advent of the typewriter, telegram and postcard. This might seem like dull, nap-worthy reading, but Freeman's research is extensive and, in these chapters, his writing is at its most engaging. He notes, for instance, that H.L. Mencken felt duty-bound to respond to every piece of mail he received every day, much like many of us feel duty-bound to reply to every e-mail. Like the current dictates of e-mail etiquette, Mencken demanded a response to his mail: "If I write to a man on any proper business and he fails to answer me at once, I set him down as a boor and an ass." Part of the point Freeman drives home is that Mencken—unlike us—contended with the postal service, making it impossible to write and reply more than once every few days. With e-mail, we're bound—lest we be boors and asses—to respond within minutes of receiving a message.
While Freeman's history does underscore how easily a medium like e-mail can overtake our lives, his history often undermines his own argument. If nothing else, human beings are creatures of correspondence, always seeking out ways to connect from afar. Rather than being an anomaly in that history, e-mail is very much part of it. The same complaints made today about e-mail were once made about casual letter-writing, telegrams and postcards. Freeman himself points to an op-ed at the turn of the 20th century that complained, "There is no standard nowadays of elegant letter writing...rapid note taking finishes the ruination of handwriting and style." The same complaint is echoed today when professors lament the lack of proper grammar and style in their students' e-mails. A hundred years ago, the postcard was often blamed for the demise in letter writing. And, like e-mail, it had defenders. Freeman quotes a New York Times contributor who pointed out that, with postcards, "People write less than they ever did, and yet they keep their friends at home posted...better than ever before." The same might have been said of the telegram a hundred years ago and is today said of e-mails, text messages, tweets and facebook updates—indicating that today's e-mail addicts might very well be lamenting tomorrow's users of the next craze in correspondence technology.
While Freeman's criticism of e-mailing is fair, it doesn't always connect and his prose, particularly in the non-historical sections, adds to this disconnect. His message is powerfully clear. But—make no mistake—Freeman's is a manifesto and, like any manifesto, the prose can be self-righteous and vague, complete with hyperbole and sections where rhetorical questions are piled on top of rhetorical questions. The last chapter, wherein Freeman advises on how to cut down your e-mailing, while not without its relevant points, is also not without its condescension: "Before you send a message, ask yourself: Is this message essential?"
By its very nature, a manifesto asks its readers to either accept or deny its message and Freeman's will invariably attract readers who already agree with him. Despite its flaws, The Tyranny of E-mail is part of an increasingly relevant discourse about the effects of the Internet. I'd like to spin further, but I need to e-mail this off to my editor.