You Are What You Email

Email is 30 years old. This puts it in the same graduating class as Jennifer Lopez, the Big Mac, and the Summer of Love. Boy, I'd love to be around that high school reunion.

No one knows exactly what date the first email was sent, though it's a safe bet it was an offer for a cable descrambler, a penis enlarger, or a chance to share in $150 million some oil company accidentally left in a Nigerian bank account. It's amazing how often they do things like that. Maybe if they paid more attention to where they leave their money gas prices wouldn't be so high.

It took a long time for email to catch on -- something about people needing computers before they could use it -- but now it's a regular part of the daily routine of 53 percent of Americans. That figure would be higher but everyone else is waiting to find out if their HMO will cover them should they catch a computer virus.

People who use email spend an average of 29 minutes a day reading, writing, and massaging the crick in their neck they get from turning their heads sideways trying to figure out if those symbols at the bottom of the message are a smiley face of a person winking while eating a Popsicle or a typo. This adds up to 176 hours a year, or 7.35 days. That's a long time. Especially when you realize you could be spending that time reading, sleeping, or trying to figure out why no one has voted off the most obvious Weakest Link, host Ann Robinson. Personally, I'm thinking about bagging email entirely and using that week to lay on the beach in Maui. Don't worry, I'll send a postcard.

On the bright side, this is nowhere near as much time as we spend on the telephone. Ninety-two percent of Americans talk on the phone each day and we spend an average of 45 minutes doing it. That's a lot of chattering. Like 11 days a year of it. The scary thing is I probably average 5 minutes a day on the phone, which means someone somewhere has to spend 85 minutes a day to compensate, and to fill all that time she's probably resorted to telling fourteen people today about how she called the Hazmat Team to make sure it was really Gold Bond powder in her husband's boxers.

It's hard to tell whether email saves time or wastes it. One thing it certainly hasn't done is save paper. Then again, neither have computers in general, contrary to the predictions that they would lead us towards a paperless society. Face it, 2,000-year-old habits are hard to break.

People like reading things on paper. They like reading them in bed, passing them around the office, and filling file cabinet after file cabinet with them. One of the biggest paper hoarders is the federal government. The National Archives stores over three billion pieces of paper. Add to that the paper kept in 22 records centers around the country and there's a whopping 20 million cubic feet of it being held onto. That's about six billion pages, and it's increasing by about 95 million sheets a year. Still, that's barely an eighth of what it would be if everyone printed out all the email chain letters they get in an average week.

This puts my father's paper hoarding in a nice perspective. When my parents moved several years ago my brothers and I helped clean out and pack up the house. There were Life magazines dating back to the first year it came out. There were files stuffed with old cartoons chiseled on stone tablets. There was my brother's kindergarten report card, a drawing my other brother did of the family (any resemblance being purely accidental), and probably the first piece of toilet paper they used to wipe my smooth little baby butt. I didn't have the heart (or stomach) to look.

Some people naturally generate more paper than others. Like Buckminster Fuller for example. He was the philosopher, engineer, and inventor who, among other things, came up with the geodesic dome, coined the phrase "Spaceship Earth", and had the buckyball named after him. Technically called a buckminsterfullerene, the soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules have no commercial value yet a few years back they were in the running to be the Texas State Molecule. As if it isn't bad enough that the state flower is the blue bonnet instead of the yellow rose, that rodeo is the state sport instead of watching the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and that the armadillo is the state small mammal (unless it's smooshed on the side of the road in which case it goes into the chili, which is the state dish).

When Fuller died in 1983 he left about 2,000 linear feet of archives which now reside at Stanford University. That's a lot of paper. About 6,315,789 sheets to be exact. There's no question it's much more impressive than having a stack of floppy discs sitting on a desk and thinking "That's my life's output." Or worse, having it stored on a hard drive in a computer. Along with a whole lot of software programs, the entire Zamfir pan flute collection on MP3, and a bunch of pictures you wouldn't want your mother to see, of course.

Email is here to stay. At least until something newer and faster comes along. But even then we'll probably want to print it out. After all, old habits die hard. And besides, offers to teach us how to earn big bucks working only a half an hour a day from home are much more interesting to read when you're curled up in bed.

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