Future historians of culture will surely regard 1993 as the Year of E-mail. Nothing has so radically changed the way that millions of ordinary people can communicate with one another since the telephone first entered the home. Electronic mail enables us to type and receive messages at any computer screen and, thanks to the Internet and other smaller networks, have the message show up instantly on the screen (or in the electronic mailbox) of our correspondents, anywhere in the world.
That’s the big picture. And now, here are the Top 10 features of E-mail--the things that make it revolutionary:
No. 10: Its colossal holding power. People gladly spend hours each day writing and reading at their screens. They write to their friends and relatives, they write to people they’ve never met. E-mail usage is growing at more than 300,000% a year. In San Francisco, a dozen coffeehouses offer access to computer networks at the rate of 25 cents for four minutes. Everyday, people reportedly spend $10 in quarters, not playing sterile games but communicating with new friends.
No. 9: It is not generation-specific. E-mail is not a gadget that appeals just to the young. People of all ages are logging on and if they’re not members of institutions that subscribe to the Internet, they are subscribing (for less than the cost of cable TV) to commercial services like CompuServe and America Online.
No. 8: It is an ecological dream. E-mail consumes no paper, kills no trees, burns no gasoline in a mailman’s truck. In fact, E-mail represents the culmination of the de-materialization of culture. First, we painted our messages on the immovable stone walls of our caves. Then, in a great leap forward, we learned to engrave on heavy clay tablets. Centuries later, paper and printing made culture hugely, historically portable. In the 1980s, faxes sped things up but still consumed paper. E-mail is all about spirit moving instantaneously about the globe, inhabiting no matter at all and using precious little energy.
No. 7: It’s the ultimate instance of swords beaten into plowshares. The Internet began its existence as DARPA-net, the Defense Department’s research link that enabled signals to be sent to nuclear missile silos around the country. Now that death-dealing technology has been given over to humanists, artists, gossipers, hobbyists, academics and plain folks enriching their lives with witty, trivial, informative and humane banter.
No. 6: It’s the ideal of democracy. E-mail doesn’t care what you wear, what you drive, what pen you write with or whether you speak with an accent. As one canine is seen E-mailing to another mutt in a recent New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” If you’re slow of speech or talk with a stutter, E-mail leaves that behind. Cyberspace does not see physical challenges and is colorblind. Our new electronic culture is not about the body, it’s about the mind.
No. 5: The instant you send your message it’s on your correspondent’s desk, not in some stack of envelopes. People tend to answer their E-mail immediately, so that business decisions, editorial changes, travel plans, career moves all get speeded up and made more efficient by orders of magnitude.
No. 4: Office romances are multiplying. The reason is simple: You can be locked in an intimate E-mail conversation with someone across the room or across the country, and it looks to everyone else like you are innocently working.
No. 3: E-mail lets you meet strangers whose interests are yours, yet it protects you from being bored by them. Thanks to bulletin boards, you can tap into ongoing conversations that are about such specific topics as last night’s episode of “Northern Exposure” or the culture of Pakistan or what’s happening on laser disc or the latest news release from the White House.
It’s like walking into a room where everyone is talking about the very thing that you’re most interested in. Stay if you’re learning something useful, leave if you’re not. This is the opposite of sterile, isolated video games. It’s social, it’s curiosity-driven and full of information.
No. 2: E-mail is connecting the planet into the global village Marshall McLuhan promised us 30 years ago. We can follow events in Sarajevo more closely on the Internet than in the papers or on TV. I hear from people in Singapore and Denmark more often and more interestingly than from people who live down the street. The world is becoming more like a living critter with a working nervous system--not because we’re all watching the same pictures on some global TV network, but because we are getting connected to something that speaks to our individual interests and curiosities.
And the No. 1 feature of E-mail (drum roll, please) is that, futuristic as it sounds, it’s happening right now. For millions of users here and abroad, we’re not talking pie in the sky any more--we’re talking pie a la modem.