Why the advent of email has proven to be a big step backwards - Sir Andrew Cook

Remember those times before email, when communication was by letter, telephone and face-to-face word of mouth? We got along just fine. Then the telex arrived, creating an immediate real-time written record, which was ideal for definitive dialogue between businesses.

Letter, phone, telex and face-to-face was all I had when I was building my business in the 1970s and 1980s. There were no communication problems. Everything worked as it should.

As it had in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, albeit a bit slower. Back in the 1940s and 1950s direct dial telephones had only just been invented and most phone calls required routing via an operator located in a remote telephone exchange. One picked up the receiver and waited for the operator to answer. For long distance or international calls one asked for ‘trunks’ before being connected to another operator and repeating the phone number required. It was slower, but it worked well.

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Those were the days when phone calls were expensive, encouraging the caller to be economical with his words and to think in advance. It was the same with the telegram, predecessor of the telex, which was charged pro rata to the number of words used. Even the flimsy paper of the aerogram letter encouraged an economy of words, whether in size or quantity, the aerogram being of a fixed size and price. The tighter your writing and the more succinct your message, the more you could say. Even paper itself was scarce: as a young schoolboy, I remember the masters writing notes to each other on small scraps conserved for re-use.

A person using a laptop. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA WireA person using a laptop. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
A person using a laptop. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Communication from afar may not have been immediate, but it was still rapid: the network of undersea cables laid down in the 19th and 20th centuries allowed rapid transmission of voice and text messages, as did Marconi’s high frequency wireless systems. Few destinations were more than 48 hours distant by air mail, thanks to the contracts between the major nations and their national airlines. In Britain, the foundation of British Overseas Airways Corporation’s business model was its air mail contract with the Post Office rather than its passenger revenues.

The arrival of the fax in the late 1980s provided little fundamental change beyond a further ease of message composition and acceleration of transmission. Then along came email.

Before email, everyone involved in communication was obliged to think when composing their messages, both as to content – did it make good sense? – and brevity, which was inversely proportionate to cost. Moreover, there was no such thing as a laptop, and computer screens, if they existed at all – they only arrived on the scene in the late 1970s – were confined to a specific purpose, such as finance.

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The desk-bound worker had to be seen actually working at their desk or heard talking to someone else. There was nowhere to hide, and speaking was the preferred means of rapid communication.

With the arrival of email and its brother-in-arms, the desktop or laptop computer, the idle were released from the burden of work at a stroke. Crouching over their keyboards while peering at their screens, they could present a false picture of deep concentration. Whether it was a production plan or a pornographic website that had captured the user’s attention, the boss passing by would never know. Moreover, it was easier for the lazy to type out a message to the colleague in the next-door office than to get up and go and see that person. It took longer too. Why rely on quick and straightforward voice communication when one can spin out an e-conversation until it’s time to go home?

The computer industry trumpeted email as a breakthrough but in reality it was a big step backwards. Email actually makes effective communication slower, and the sloppy composition and syntax which it permits eliminates the succinctness of prose required in previous eras.

With email, one doesn’t have to take care in composition. Words are free and there is no paper to contain them. One doesn’t have to be on one’s guard against a quizzical boss seeking out the idle.

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One can extend a correspondence which by voice would take five minutes to occupy an entire afternoon. Add ‘working from home’ to this recipe for sloth and you wonder why this is said to be ‘progress’.

‘Think before you speak’ is a good maxim for life. ‘Think before you write’ is an equally good maxim. But with email, there is a lesser tendency to pause and reflect on what you have written. Consider how many prominent figures in public life have been pilloried by the media as a result of hasty and ill-considered emails.

It’s not only the lazy who languish behind its protection. Even bosses are all devotees, because it makes their lives easier. Screens protecting them as securely as did a Trojan warrior’s shield.

Lawyers, energised by its empathy with time-based billing, find it indispensable. The tech companies prosper as they unilaterally implement unwanted upgrades at random; upgrades which by reason of their expense and complexity magnify still further the computer dependency of our world.

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Even the lover likes the anonymous interface it provides when dating and de-dating. But make no mistake; behind this façade of high-tech communication lurks the abyss of dependency. It is a thousand years since civilisation emerged from the Dark Ages. I fear a new dark age will soon engulf our western society, and our reliance on computers and the dominance of email will be among the causes.

Sir Andrew Cook is a British industrialist.

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