03 Mar 2008 ARTICLE IN BRISBANE LINE
My article Two Cheers for the Wired World has appeared on the Brisbane Line. It’s about some of the consequencies of the tsunami of email traffic which confronts people in demand, and their largely inadequate response, which means that not only are they likely to be discourteous in failing to reply but they risk deleting the ‘out of left field’ correspondence which is a spur to creative and intellectual life.
TWO CHEERS FOR THE WIRED WORLD
I consider the internet a wonder of our age, born of another wonder, the computer. As such, the internet appears to precisely reflect the tempo and manners of the times in technologically advanced societies. It has transformed the way in which people keep in touch with oneanother and the way in which they acquire information without supplanting the previous means through which they accomplished these tasks.
My experience of the wired world is relatively brief and my use of it unadventurous, extending to a website devoted to my video archive of Tamborine Mountain’s biodiversity, footage from the archive on Youtube and communicating via email. I am reluctant to transact financially on the net. Nor am I drawn to the weird wired world’s plethora of virtual worlds, choosing to remain more engaged in the world around me.
The phrase There is no gain without pain, primarily associated with physical endeavour, has become a contemporary truism. It tends to be uttered by the person inflicting the pain. But in relation to technological and social advance I believe it is more a case that There is no gain without loss. It would most likely be uttered by someone with a feeling of loss, which equates with emotional and mental pain.
Thus my admiration of, and enthusiasm for the internet are tempered by my sense that communication via email (I exclude spam) outside the circle of family and friends, is responsible for a loss of courtesy and breadth of vision in the way we interact. I attribute this to people in demand being unable to deal with the seemingly exponential growth in their email traffic which causes them to not even read, let alone answer many, if not most of the emails they receive, and am curious to know if others share my point of view. The situation is complicated by those people in the media or business who publish their email address at work, thereby inviting emails from all and sundry and the charge of being discourteous if they fail to reply. It is made worse by the fact that fewer people now have secretaries to deal with correspondence at a time when they are having to cope with a communication tsunami. Nowadays this modern affliction also affects communicating by letter, turning anyone who is not on the internet into a potentially hapless victim of email overload.
Not so long ago, in the days when written communication between individuals usually took the form of a letter, people stood a good chance of receiving a reply. It was widely accepted that in all but the most egregious instances, common courtesy demanded as much and I feel that this should apply equally to communication by email. There tended to be a shared sense of reciprocity between writer and recipient. The recipient had received from the writer and it was incumbent on the recipient to ensure that the writer became a recipient also. Observing this nicety imparted a decency to written communication, not least that between strangers where it was of particular social value. The ethic of acknowledging what one had received, in whatever form, still held sway. Not answering emails and letters indicates the extent to which its hold on society’s mores has weakened.
From time to time during the past four decades, I have written to prominent individuals in connection with an issue or project, inviting comment and my recollection is that, until relatively recently, I would have received a reply from most of them. My intention in writing is to enter into a discourse, an exchange of views and information, however brief and limited, because such exchanges are a crucial stimulus to an individual’s engagement with the world and a welcome bonus to a society’s artistic, intellectual and civil development.
Until I came to Australia from the UK 20 years ago, I would have written to academics, artists, publishers and the like. I recall writing to the government think tank in Downing Street shortly after its inception, arguing that they should include an artist as part of their multi-disciplinary team and offering my services. I received a classic, standard reply saying that the content of my letter had been noted and should a suitable vacancy occur, I would be considered, as if my letter had come from just another civil servant. But at least I got a reply, even if it studiously ignored the reason why I wrote in the first place.
In Australia, I have written to people in the media, to academics, to bureaucrats and politicians. For example, after the Port Arthur massacre, I wrote to the Prime Minister supporting his action on gun control and received a gracious reply. Likewise, after I wrote to the Queensland premier following his election win in 1998 and to the Leader of the Opposition following the result of the republic referendum. I wrote to a newly appointed High Court judge about development in South East Queensland and received an exemplary reply. It was courteous and carefully addressed the concerns I had brought to his attention. I believe all the letters I have sent to bureaucrats whether at local or state government level have been answered, even if more often than not evasively.
Numerous emails I have sent to strangers have elicited pleasing responses. But months before the federal election was called, I sent an email to three leading opposition politicians and to my then local ALP candidate, now a federal MP, and did not receive a single reply. The demands of the phoney election campaign can be cited as a convenient excuse for not answering, but to me this lack of courtesy is inexcusable. I fared even worse with two professors from Griffith university to whom I sent both an email and a follow-up letter. The only time I was moved to email a journalist whose email address was printed below his column was two years ago and only a couple of months or so ago I emailed a managing director whose address appeared on a company brochure. Neither replied. Admittedly, I did not request a read receipt reply to any of the emails. Had I done so and not received a reply, I could be reasonably certain that my emails would not have been read, which I conclude has probably been the case anyway.
It would be interesting to know how widely my experience and view point are shared by others. In the meantime what should be done to remedy the situation. Essentially it appears to be a matter of time management. It must be increasingly difficult for experts to keep up with the latest information on their subject and to deal with the daily flow of emails from colleagues located all over the world. What chance does a complete stranger, who may have something illuminating to say, stand in gaining the attention of an expert weighed down by these mainstream demands. The discourtesy of not replying is bad enough in its impact on society, but the inability to reliably intercept a valuable contribution from out of left field is far worse. The chances are that a majority of such emails are deleted with the junk mail. Indeed they may be in the spam folder. What a tragic waste.
The problem is exacerbated by what has happened in the workplace in recent times. The rise of market orthodoxy caused a period of ruthless downsizing of the workforce. Its effects can be seen in today’s exploitative workplace where people are forced to take on additional work as colleagues who have been sacked or leave are not replaced.
I regularly receive an ‘out of office’ reply to an email I have sent, but have never received an automatic ‘thank you’ reply. Does such a reply exist, I wonder. Of course an automatic thank you does not mean that one’s email has been read by its intended recipient, but it would help to restore a modicum of courtesy to the wired world. Political, academic and commercial organisations clearly need to employ additional staff to help handle email traffic and overcome the difficulty of accessing ‘out of left field’ correspondence. Time-challenged individuals in demand who do not work in an organisation may not be able to justify having a secretary, so the least they can do is send an automatic thank you reply.
The situation actually calls for more than employing additional staff, since the wired world tends to direct correspondence to individuals rather than organisations. In the wired world official and private correspondence occupy the same personal space. I feel that resolving the issue of non-spam traffic overload and how to improve email etiquette is largely a task for the computer programmers. For them to provide the answers will require my point about loss of courtesy and breadth of vision to be publicly and effectively made in order to generate a demand for beneficial change in the way we deal with email traffic.
Peter Kuttner January 2008