Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Writer Writes about Writing in Cyberspace

I found it interesting that The New York Review decided to run a review of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. I found it more interesting that the reviewing task was assigned to Janet Malcolm, who not only knows more than a thing or two about the general practice of writing but also maintains a historical perspective that includes the now-obsolete genre of the letter-writing manual. Indeed, true to the tradition of one of my own teachers that the first sentence can make or break the rest of the text, Malcolm uses that historical perspective as her point of departure:

To say that Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home is more a users' manual than a book is not to belittle it.

This then becomes the theme of her review, culminating in the following summary paragraph:

So this is the crux of the matter: Email is a medium of bad writing. Poor word choice is the norm—as is tone deafness. The problem of tone is, of course, the problem of all writing. There is no "universal default tone." When people wrote letters they had the same blank screen to fill. And there were the same boneheads among them, who alienated correspondents with their ghastly oblivious prose. One has only to look at the letter-writing manuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to see that most of the problems Shipley and Schwalbe deal with are not unique to email but common to the whole epistolary genre. They are writing problems. Some of us do find the time in the day to write a carefully worded, exclamation-point-free email when the occasion demands. Mostly, though, all of us who use email avail ourselves of its permission to write fast and sloppy. Shipley and Schwalbe's serene acceptance of the unwriterliness of email, of its function as an instrument of speedy, heedless communication, is correct, and their guide is helpful precisely because it doesn't pretend that the instrument is anything but what it is.

This conclusion is then followed by a coda of two observations. The first seems to regard email as a transient phenomenon:

As email's novelty wears off and its limitations become clearer, we will revert to the telephone when something complex, intimate, or low-minded needs to be communicated.

As one of the earliest adopters of email, I find it very hard to think of it as a novelty; but I do recognize that there has been a long trek, which began in the research laboratory, slowly migrated to the workplace, and eventually found its was into people's homes. Even today, someone who is working with me on a writing project (of all things!) has not yet learned to use email (meaning that I cannot send my drafts for review as attachments); but that person's schedule really does not allow time for email, which reminded me that Malcolm never really addressed the hypothesis that the "fast and sloppy" style is a product of that time-consuming Inbox that greets us, not only in the morning but at just about any time we take to check it. This then raises the more critical issue in Malcolm's observation, which is that life no longer seems to afford us the time we need to deal with the complex or, for that matter, the intimate; and that alleged novelty of email is not going to "wear off" precisely because it allows us to weasel out of complexity and intimacy with quick-and-dirty verbal gestures. As I have previously argued, we have sacrificed a commitment to serious communication in favor of "hollow conversations;" and, at the risk of stretching the metaphor, email has provided the altar, the knife, and the victim required to enable the sacrifice.

This provides a useful segue to Malcolm's second coda observation:

Interestingly, the models Shipley and Schwalbe choose to illustrate their section "How to Write a Perfect Email" were written by twelve-year-olds. The really young, evidently, don't need the help the rest of us do; like Blakean innocents, they are untouched by email's evil. Their harmless chatter ("OMG! I was playing yesterday, when this really CUTE boy rode up on his bike") is reminiscent of the notes we used to pass in class, which are, come to think of it, the precursors of email: hastily written, instantly delivered and replied to, and, if intercepted by the wrong person, mortifying.

In making this observation, Malcolm may have missed out on the one way in which email's "novelty" might "wear off," because such "harmless chatter" seems to be migrating away from the formalities of email to the more casual environments of social software (where one has a bit more control over how many eyes see the notes that get passed). For all the debate over whether or not Facebook belongs in the enterprise, I still tend to agree with John Seely Brown that, if we want a glimpse of the workplace of the future, we should look at the kids of the present. Perhaps MySpace is the laboratory where we are most likely to learn about the future of communication at both work and leisure. It can certainly provide us with an abundance of texts; but, situated as we are in an older generation, how skilled can we ever be at interpreting those texts? At the very least I suspect that Malcolm's dismissal of such content as "harmless chatter" is premature!

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