Electronic Mail and The Written Word

Electronic Mail and The Written Word

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Electronic Mail and The Written Word

Imagine a world without cyber culture technology. Picture using telegrams, typewriters, and payphones to connect to the world, sending all correspondence through mail, and leaving messages on home answering machines. At one time, these outdated items were the wave of the future. Mark Twain couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the typewriter. Why aren’t these technical advances not good enough anymore? Why have these ways of communicating become historical artifacts? Most of one’s answer lies in the fact that people are constantly looking for faster, more convenient ways to achieve their goals, and cyber culture does just that. Tools such as e-mail provide one with a way to write and communicate with others in a very convenient way.

The world we live in is very fast paced. Tasks such as hand writing and mailing letters have become too time consuming. As Dennis Baron writes in his essay “From Pencils to Pixels”, “…the physical effort of handwriting, crossing out, revising, cutting and pasting, in short, the writing practices I had been engaged in regularly since the age of four, now seemed to overwhelm and constrict me, and I longed for the flexibility of digitized text” (Tribble and Trubek 36). Besides the troubles of writing a letter, one would then have to stamp and seal the envelope, and rely on the trusty post office to deliver your letter in a timely manner. As essayist Adam Gopnik states, “Ten years ago, even the most literate of us wrote maybe half a dozen letters a year” (181). Ten years ago, one would have more than likely picked up the phone rather than sit down and write a letter.

E-mail, in a way, has digitized the letter. It has created a way where people can conveniently correspond daily. One can e-mail a friend in California, a professor at Eastern, a grandparent in Florida, and a spouse at work all in a matter of minutes. E-mail, in some cases, is the only way people communicate with each other. For example, I have just recently within the past year come into contact again with my best friend from elementary school. Since she travels frequently to other countries for her job, it would be very difficult to keep in touch with her via letters and phone calls.

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However, e-mail has allowed us to stay in touch.

Although e-mail has changed the way people communicate, there are still similarities between this new medium and the past ways of writing. Gopnik compares the effectiveness of e-mail to print:

The new appeal of e-mail is the old appeal of print. Written language gives you a hat and a Groucho nose and glasses; it’s you there, but not quite you. E-mail has succeeded brilliantly for the same reason…what we actually want from our exchanges is the minimum human contact commensurate with the need to contact with other people. (181)

As Gopnik points out, written language is just another way two people can communicate without physically seeing each other. E-mail provides the same service, while increasing the speed and convenience of the written word.

Dennis Baron stated, “Writing lacks such tonal cues of the human voice as pitch and stress, not to mention the physical cues that accompany face to face communication” (41). Although this is true, e-mail has given the writer a unique way to express himself without the need for handwriting or verbal assistance. Symbols such as the happy and sad faces give the reader a sense of what the writer is feeling. Also, abbreviations such as lol (laugh out loud) tell something about the writer’s mood at that present time. Usage of font can express a loud tone or subtle tone; bold and underline can be used to demonstrate intimidation and importance. In the essay “The Conversion”, Wendy Lesser tells of her struggle to accept e-mail as an adequate form of writing. She talks of the first time she realized her friend’s personal style still existed in his electronic text:

To my enormous pleasure, …the electronic mode did not wash out his characteristic tones. On the contrary, he sounded in his virtual incarnation exactly as he did in real life: wry, observant, dryly affectionate, subtle sharp. Personal style, it turned out, did not get blotted out by the machine. (230)

Baron also states that in order for a new writing technology to gain acceptance, it must find a way to be authenticated (41). Authenticity relates to something that can be verified, something genuine. A personal handwritten letter is authentic. It comes directly from the author’s pen to the paper. Most letters include a signature, maintaining the author’s claim to the piece of work. E-mail works in a similar way. Although it is not handwritten, email comes from an individual’s personal e-mail account, one that requires a password and verifiable address to enter. The person’s name sending the information via e-mail is always apparent at the top of the screen, and an e-mail address is given, providing the reader with a mechanism to contact the writer directly. Neither the personal letter or e-mail correspondence is fool proof, though. Anyone can pretend to be another, whether it’s forging signatures or hacking into other’s accounts. Authenticity is a tricky subject, and unless the information is coming out of an individual’s mouth, one should always be aware of the possibility of fraud, whether it’s electronic or handwritten.

Cyber culture has invaded our lives like a tidal wave—so powerful it can’t be stopped. Yet, a tool such as e-mail is so valuable, one might not remember what life was like without it. I remember when calculators and spell check were looked down upon. Now, these technical advances are required in most classrooms. E-mail has already made that transition. For example, a student at Eastern Michigan University cannot register for classes unless she has a working e-mail account. In two of my classes this year, e-mail is a must—teachers are now using this device to track student’s participation in the reading material and discussions. Instead of physically handing in papers, many students have opted to send teacher’s e-mail with attachments. Teachers are now requesting that their students use e-mail to contact them, rather than call on the phone. As you can see, the academic world has, without a doubt, taken advantage of the new medium we call electronic mail.

Although e-mail looks and feels quite different than the written word, the elements and the positive aspects are all still present. However, e-mail has now given us a faster, more convenient way to contact people across the world. And if you think it ends here, think again. Just as we have done with telegrams, typewriters, and payphones, someday we will look at e-mail as a thing of the past—something that takes way too much time and effort for this fast-paced world.

Works Cited

Tribble, Evelyn B., and Anne Trubek. Writing Material. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1966.

Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels.” Writing Material. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1966. 35-52.

Gopnick, Adam. “The Return of the Word.” Writing Material. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1966. 180-182

Lesser, Wendy. “The Conversion”. Writing Material. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1966. 227-233.
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