Open Letter to a Friend: Email is Dead

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes


Yesterday, to add to the dismay of reaching almost no one I cared to call I realized something about the “same difference” between my two states of geographic/cartographic being. At the risk of sounding particularly malicious or cynical, I could say I could call my friends here in France—Skype costs two cents a minute no matter the destination—but they, each of them, give the impression of having lives, as opposed to, say, agendas and itineraries.

But what is worse, there was, as has become usual, a dearth of email messages. But we’ll get to that in a minute, or several minutes, or several hundred words.

I do use Skype, a voice over IP (VoIP) service, that for a little more than two cents a minute allows one to call anyone anywhere in the world with a legitimate land line or mobile phone number, as long as you have a Internet connection of sufficient bandwidth. Being the true Scotsman you are, you are no doubt at least aware of it. However, as it’s the “magic” of Internet Protocol exploitation, or trickery if you are of a Creationist bent, anyone with caller ID on their receiving phone equipment sees only a meaningless sequence of ordinal numbers (something like 0000123456).

As a result, even Steve, who has become so sensitized as to the need to make wise use of his discretionary time (time when he is not actively engaged in either his current “thing,” which is playing music (a good thing, may I hasten to add), or the same mindless, heedless temporizing he’s been doing his entire life, when not actually earning a living, which he no longer is required to do even in these parlous times, and I am not picking on him, he’s only first among equals, a body of souls, as the 19th century Russian novelists would say, with remarkably similar lives — creating a new statistical category for taxonomic purposes, those of us sufficiently well off, even after abandoning careers of varying degrees of success for whatever compelling reasons: ennui, angst, sudden loss of interest in life’s calling, or, perhaps, caregiving to loved ones with terminal conditions, and still comfortable, i.e., not reading the help wanted pages, or networking by whatever means, even after the rampages and ravages of the Bushite last fiscal hurrah; I suggest the rubric, the “Non-Retired,” similar to the undead, without the inconvenience as yet of having passed through the actual throes of giving up the ghost)—anyway, he does not answer such calls, especially as his chief and only mode of telephonic connection to the rest of the world is a cell phone.

This means, of course, that he must pay, except for certain hours of the day, even for incoming calls. There is a limit, given the level of service he is paying for, to the number of minutes allotted on a monthly basis before his calls are thrown into a much higher category of toll charges. And, given that his home is in a nearly, but not quite, “dead zone,” (notice a thematic trend here?), which, as you might know, if you watched tv, from some ill-considered grisly television commercials paid for by Verizon, are areas where cell phone reception is absent, or intermittent, but certainly wholly unreliable, he is disposed, prudently, to consider which calls to take and which not.

However, I was trying to write about email, and not to perseverate on my frustration over not being able to contact anyone I know on the short list of people I care to speak by phone to in the United States of America—even in my sequestration in the most rural of precincts of anyone I know (and this includes a number of acquaintances, mainly female as it happens, who for reasons still unfathomable to me choose to spend their waning years, still mentally in full possession, and so forth, and still more than moderately attractive, in such locations as Kabul, Afghanistan, which, though definitely a form of sequestration, especially if you are white and female and have a passport from a so-called first-world country, are definitely not rural, but, in fact, other than certain strategic, if remote, mountain passes in the same country, but which have the definite disadvantage of being among the most deadly, literally, in the entire world, are among the most deadly living areas on the face of the planet). But, as usual, I digress.

The only deaths, according to the newspapers locally, that seem to prevail here in La France Profonde, are the result of suicide (a police captain, with a personal weapon, as opposed to his service weapon, as if the fucking gun would be dishonored with such a dishonorable usage, while sitting in his car, on injured reserve, or whatever the police call it, and not due to return to service until March; they are being unusually mum about the possible reasons; I suspect terminal boredom), or suicide pact, or suicide abduction or suicide seduction (a mother and daughter who elected, there being an absence of subway—to throw themselves in the path of a TGV train; TGV is the acronym for “train à grande vitesse,” which means very high speed train, that being in the area of 180 miles an hour at maximum — a sure fire way to off yourself, and give the coroner some very interesting studies in pathology), or homicide (a young farmer beat his young wife insensate, and then set his farmhouse, with her and their sleeping children within, on fire), there was also a celebrity incident involving his stabbing some bloke with a “poignard” (so much more romantic sounding even than “dagger,” which is what it is), but they are both, alleged perpetrator and his victim, merely under observation and not in danger.

I am not aware if either of them is in possession of a cell phone, or as they prefer to call it here, a “mobile.” It is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, with a long “o” and the second syllable is pronounced like the excreta of the liver, and not like the city in Alabama. As in “Mo’ bile” similar to (in ghetto English) “mo’ betta’ blues.”

But the subject is email.

Yesterday, I received eleven pieces of email. Indulge me as I enumerate them.

One was actually an acknowledgment of an email that I caused to be sent to another friend, Bill, with a link to Frank Rich’s column in yesterday’s New York Sunday Times‘s “News of the Week in Review,” the sending of which the newspaper allows you to copy to yourself. Although no harm, of course, is done thereby, this kind of reflexive electronic mailing is at least analogous to talking to oneself, something I am proud, or always have been so, to say I never do, though there are those who claim that my style of writing is akin to being a kind of perpetual monologue—the only real monologue, or I should say, “true” monologue, there being no audience that I, at least, can attest to. I assume there is an audience. I will even confess to hoping there is an audience, but as Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is famous for having written, “one never knows, do one?”—and at worst, it is a kind of slow suicide, intellectual suicide, if you will. So I don’t think that bit of email counts. On the other hand, Bill did acknowledge receipt, and then, in fact, commented on the content of the Rich essay. That was two emails for my one bit of do-goodism.

So that was a good investment on my part. It left me mindful of the golden years of email, back in the 90s, when, in addition to getting actual work done—a full day’s work, for which I was often handsomely rewarded; work that included the use of email for productive discourse concerning the substance of the work for which I was being remunerated—I would conduct sometimes lengthy correspondence with various correspondents, for no other purpose than the joy and pleasure of human contact. The content of those exchanges of messages may have been substantive as well, pithy, or philosophical, as these are natural dispositions, or at least ambitions of mine (and remain so, I might add), or entirely frivolous, if not mindless temporizing (see above). Often enough, certain of my regular correspondents would forward bits of humor they had received in the form of jokes (mainly), or cartoons, or the more technologically adept would forward files of music and the first primitive videos to appear on computers. This was long before the days of iTunes (and Napster… and now the myriad other means of downloading near-commercial quality recordings) or YouTube and its many brethren. Many emails largely consisted of a sentence or two, on the order of, “Check this out!” or “This is cool,” along with a URL to some clever Web site or bit of Web content.

On the average day, not even including actual business-related emails, I would receive for certain, guaranteed, dozens and dozens of emails—not spam or junk or spurious content of any other form; back then, it appeared only at a minimum, as it took at least a couple of years for the production of electronic instant garbage to become a global industry, and an international felony—and often enough, “Oh happy day,” they (email messages) would arrive in the hundreds.

And whereas others, including Linda (who had the onus of managers, and then their managers, and yet more levels of managers above them to the very executive level of the CEO, bearing down upon her to be productive and to cause her many minions to be productive, even whilst they all exchanged hundreds of emails that were, in the main, of that dreary variety of post called memoranda and cover-your-ass notes, all related to the business of IBM, and most of them, in fact, having nothing to do with her specific mandate) lamented the utter lack of headroom because of the volume of email daily, which had to be processed, and yet which arrived in such numbers, from so many levels of hierarchy, that the mere management of which messages to answer, which messages to answer in depth, which merely to store (lest it be sought, however unlikely the future possibility, in some forthcoming query, inquiry, or inquest—of course, now, we learn on the blessed evening of his departure therefrom, the Bush White House has utterly destroyed, lost track of, or simply can refuse to acknowledge ever existed, literally millions of email messages, and there is not a peep or a stir, except the usual ineffectual murmur of protest on the editorial page of The New York Times (another emerging theme here, but related actually, as the NYT is a newspaper, appropriately designated the nation’s “newspaper of record,” that is accurately positioned universally as a dead letter itself, dead news walking, or, at the very least, without over-dramatizing this, a moribund form of news transmittal)), and which messages, finally, to ignore completely, all of which meant that each day was fraught.

The processing of her email usually left Linda with about 20 minutes out of her nominal eight-hour workday, including a yogurt and piece of fruit lunch consumed at her desk, one hand holding a napkin, and the other (hand), no doubt, on either the mouse or the keyboard, in order to get all of her other work done, which means her de facto workday was usually ten to 12 hours. While I blithely would work at least as long, but only because I spent so much time getting all of my work done as well as conducting, if not more than holding up more than my share of, these lively email interchanges I so fondly recall.

But as I say, those were the golden years. And I, social creature that I am, despite my saturnine, if not curmudgeonly reputation, relished the contact, and encouraged it, and promoted it. I sent far more messages than I ever received. I know because I was my own Nielsen rating system, periodically telling my correspondents that, in toto, for each message I received, I had sent something like five or six.

If nothing else, it gave me an incredibly fast touch-typing speed, and, being younger, a much lower percentage of typos and the kinds of solecisms that are now only embarrassing, especially because no one says anything when I send a message that has at least two or three instances of English sentence structure that would be impossible to parse even by a linguist, because I typed a word that passed through my brain minutes before, while projecting ahead to the sentence to come. What the hell? My age is coming in line with the level of expectancy of such mistakes, so in addition to being a crank, I have an excuse for being incomprehensible as well.

However, the point is: in the past, hundreds of messages—I was in epistolary heaven. Today (or yesterday), eleven emails (and I haven’t lost track of the fact that I haven’t actually enumerated each of them as to provenance, subject or purpose).

Two emails were from sources sponsoring services to which I subscribed long since. Not for the pathetic reason of at least being able to expect the occasional quotidian contact, even if only from another machine—and yet, and yet… No, one was from the City of Cambridge, which offers a newsletter telling citizens of that estimable municipality just what’s happening in City Hall, and elsewhere in the confines of the People’s Republik, at least insofar as the official governors of our lives have any say in the matter. It does tell you when there are snow emergency days, and where the Department of Public Works is blocking traffic, and which departments are offering seasonally and temporally relevant services, etc. The other is from one of two sources that provide me with a listing of currency exchange rates for the world’s many great currencies, against the dollar. As I have to pay bills in France in euros, including a mortgage, and mortgage insurance, phone bills, Internet bills, electric bills, water and sewer, home insurance, and the taxes imposed by the government of the great Republic of France because I am a homeowner, and an inhabitant of French real estate, it’s helpful at least to know what the real basis should be of that portion of my daily allowance of anxiety about matters beyond my actual control should be.

I got an email, as I do with infrequent regularity from a diminishing list of friends who pass along what passes for humor, which inevitably has been forwarded to them from their dwindling sources. What is curious, aside from the innate lack of humor in any of the materials thereby forwarded to me, is the quality of a kind of mass or global perseveration. The jokes, or videos, or cartoons, or “astounding images,” or bits of audio, are materials recycled, as I would swear in court, repeatedly over the space of at least the last 15 years—the amount of time it is reasonable to expect is the maximum an ordinary citizen like myself could have possibly spent on the World Wide Web, as it used to be called.

In the old days (see notes on “golden age of email,” above) I could expect a regular flow of material, much of it quite humorous and usually coming from my stock broker (this being entirely reasonable, as brokerages were among the first businesses to comprehend the power and value of the Internet as a communications medium, and therefore were the first to expend the enormous amounts necessary to “wire” a network nationally for their employees, which thereby provided them with connectivity with all their peers in all the other brokerages and financial service companies). Because they were the only ones wired to one another coast-to-coast, brokers and their co-workers, managers, etc. were always the first to “break” new material, irrespective of the source, usually one coast or the other. That much of it was, in fact, not work related, but simply jokes and other kinds of humor, made of it, at worst, a benefit. I am sure bosses turned a blind eye. Stock brokering is a nasty business, as we all know, and anything that improves morale…

Anyway, the same, or very similar, materials are still being cycled and recycled.

The only other material of this type I see are videos of commercials, usually advertising products in foreign markets, and usually with overtones of sexuality that are, in the main, verboten on American television. Further, while I’m on the subject, and not that I object, except for the fundamental sophomoric, if not jejune, quality, and ultimate sameness, at least some of these occasional “pass-along” messages (usually with the admonition in the subject heading, either to turn down the volume, or to view the screen in private) include photographs or videos that feature, prominently, the naked and almost fictive breasts of young women of uncommon beauty and usually of the age segment known as nubile. Needless to say, being on the far reaches of the segment known as “middle-aged” myself, these images are usually sent by middle-aged men of my circle who really, in my opinion, should be spending more time thinking of ways to make their mates, if they are so happily provided, aware of how much they appreciate them—with flowers, say, or terms of endearment, or kisses involving the tongue, or caresses. There’s no need to belabor this.

One email from yesterday, much treasured, is from a female acquaintance—I would like to say a friend, but it is not for me to say—whom I recently met, and who was responding to an email sent by me to her, and upon whom, I should add, I would readily bestow instances of the foregoing suggested attentions I have outlined above. I was lamenting the inadequacy, or lack of reliability, of electronic media. This as a pertinent subject, as she has just returned to the United States from foreign travel, and I remain here, in this state of compromised sequestration, and all we have are phones and computers with which to communicate. And, as if to emphasize the point I am carrying on at such lengths to elaborate here, in fact, as so many people still do, or once again do so, she prefers the phone to email. So I cannot hope for much solace in that form—the electronic epistolary form—from that quarter.

The last of the emails I have not accounted for comes from an old dear friend, a man I have known for 35 years, well, 36 now, with the new year. He makes his living as a consultant and adviser to senior management, and he is very good at it. He is kind and courteous enough to include me on his mailing list of clients to whom he regularly sends, gratis, tips, very brief, and, actually, substantive and useful, as a way of reminding them that he stands ready to serve in any number of possible roles to the betterment of their business.

Obviously, I cannot avail myself of his services, and, though I’d prefer a personal note, even of equal brevity, he has to make a living. I understand this perfectly, but the value of the email he sends me is thereby reduced. Indeed, it’s a form of rubbing salt in the wound of my own incapacity, or indifference, or mere lack of initiative, in pursuing, by the same means, some kind of interest on the part of my potential audience by regularly making the same sort of contact with the objective of periodically extracting money from them in exchange for matters of value produced by me.

One could say that this essay, as it has turned out to be, is my own form of maintaining contact with those whose relationship to me I treasure. But, I am now pushing 3300 words, and counting, with this particular utterance. And I know, long since, because my friends, and other members of the audience I do have—usually as silently as they maintain themselves—that long-winded disquisitions, excrescences, call them what you will are non-starters. The age of the epistolary exchange, even over distances far shorter than that between my living room in the deepest heart of La France Profonde, and the living rooms of Cambridge, Boston, New York, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other great cities, north, and south and east of these destinations, which are the dwelling places of my dear friends, has long since died—I’d say in about 1876, when Alex Bell first uttered that immortal summons to Mr. Watson.

And it was the progeny of Bell’s great invention that sealed not the fate, but the tomb of that latter day epistolary form. As Bush, and all other politicians, and millions of businesspeople, will tell you, email simply is trouble.

Further, of course, no one writes any more. They text. Words are dying. Memes are rampant. Why should I write to you, when I cn txt u?

So I’ll finish by saying simply this, my friend. l8r

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