CyberShock: An E-mail In Every Pot?

I had to laugh last month when the RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica think tank that gave us the Pentagon Papers, recommended universal access to E-mail. Remember when House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested the government should buy a laptop computer for every poor child? He was heavily and widely ridiculed, and he quickly backpedaled, but I didn't think it was a bad idea at all. Now RAND's report backs him up. So, too, does the recent outburst of opposition to the Communications Decency Act.Don't get me wrong: I have serious problems with E-mail. Consider, for example, what happened to me last month. I received E-mail about Thanksgiving dinner from a friend with whom I had spent almost every Thanksgiving for a decade. He wrote, "We were thinking of inviting you, but we decided to keep it small." I took his message to mean: We were thinking about inviting you, but we want to keep it small, so we decided against inviting you. In a funk, I called around and made other plans.Then he called me on the phone to ask whether I was coming. He had meant: We were planning on inviting you, but we decided to keep it small and not invite some of our other friends. I had to graciously extricate myself from the other arrangements I had made.If we had been talking on the phone, I probably would have known his meaning by his inflection and other signals. In person, I would have had the additional cues of facial expression and body language. And in either situation, I would have been able to ask for clarification on the spot.There are several ways to try to build emotional cues into E- mail -- including those silly little emoticon faces and bracketed comments like grin<>> -- but none of them even approach the complexity of the signals embedded in speech and face-to-face communication. And admittedly, careful writing can eliminate confusion and misinterpretations; there's no reason E-mail messages have to be any more misleading than old-fashioned letters.But the truth is that E-mail is about speed and instant gratification. We often reply immediately, without thinking much about what was said, sometimes without reading the whole note or the entire exchange of which it was a part. We respond quickly not only because we can, but also because many of us are barraged by E-mail.Anyone who has spent much time on an Internet list knows that misunderstandings often escalate to flame wars. One answer is to avoid becoming overly reliant on E-mail. If two tense exchanges go by, pick up the telephone. But the question is bigger than that. I worry that we will lose common understandings about inflection, tone of voice, expressions, body language. Society will create a new Tower of Babel; we'll all speak the same words and still not understand each other. This is one of the reasons I continue to do my banking in person instead of using the ATM or on-line software. The tellers and I chat about our kids.So E-mail bugs me, and yet I still got excited about the Nov. 21 RAND study, "Universal Access to E-Mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications," which concluded: "The nation should support universal access to E-mail through appropriate public and private policies." If E-mail becomes the norm for communicating, people who don't have access to E-mail will be left out of the debate.Consider what happened Dec. 12, when groups such as Voters Telecom Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology organized a campaign to oppose congressional attempts to make it a crime to publish indecent material on line where minors can see it. VTW registered almost 20,000 phone calls, faxes, and E-mails to senators, representatives, and their staffers, with something like 70 contacts a minute at peak times. And that's only the contacts reported to the group. VTW board member Steven Cherry estimates that the actual number of contacts was more than 50,000.Now an E-mail note isn't as impressive as an individual letter someone took the time to write and mail, but members of Congress have to pay attention to 20,000 contacts in one day. In fact, the number of calls may be one reason the committee hadn't reached a decision by press time. So what happens when lawmakers start paying more attention to their E-mail than their paper mail?Who gets access to Congress then? The people with access to computers and Internet accounts, that's who. Can you imagine a Congress that voted partially on the basis of calls and letters in a country where only the rich could afford stamps and phone service?And what if we weren't talking about the Communications Decency Act but about a last-minute tax bill that shifted the burden from the wealthy to the poor? How would Congress vote if it had 20,000 E-mail letters, all from affluent constituents and none from the poor? And what if the poor never even heard about the bill because notifications went out over E-mail?As the RAND report states, "Information haves may leave the have-nots further behind unless we make concerted efforts today to provide all citizens with access to the technology." I still think that applies to laptops, too.

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