Reality Bites: A Cold Look at Hot Trends

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - Throughout the ages Homo sapiens have developed many excellent ways to communicate. As to which ones are superior, it's difficult to say. All can be measured against certain criteria. A good communications system should be easy to use, clear, secure, scalable and accessible. It should bring people together, not divide them. It should exalt the human spirit, not degrade it.

The spoken word, of course, is hard to beat. Most people have easy access to it, and it can be pretty secure if you whisper. Conversely, you can use it to stir a crowd, as both Marc Antony and Vince Lombardi did with great success. It binds nations together. Take the French, please.

Over great distances, however, the spoken word fails. Which is why we have telephones. Of course, the telephone has its limitations. Once you eliminate expression and gesture, the error curve rises, which is why trying to break up over the phone is such bad form. Moreover, the telephone is not terribly scalable. Try setting up a conference call.

The list goes on: Semaphore flags are excellent aboard ship as long as the day is sunny and the captain sober. Carrier pigeons convey their messages over great distances with a high degree of security unless they encounter a hungry hawk or a crack marksman.

On one matter, however, we can agree: Nothing is as bad as e-mail.

THE WAY IT WAS But e-mail, you protest, is the very lifeblood of business today. E-mail keeps us connected, informed, wired. How could we manage without it?

A better question is, How long can we afford to keep using it?

Let's try to remember how it was.

Before e-mail, we did not begin our days by plowing through spam: ads telling us how to make a fortune on the internet; memos asking us to contribute to uncertain charities; poems and puns and predictions about this or that dire new bug or virus. We spent those first precious minutes in the office connecting with our colleagues, not scanning wire stories about the decline in software sales in Bora-Bora.

Before e-mail, when someone received a promotion, we stood up and walked across the office to shake their hand. Long overdue, Sue. Way to go, Joe. Can I have your office now that you're moving upstairs, Claire? And Claire, Joe and Sue knew that, no matter how insincere, we had at least made an effort. Now we shoot the lucky sons of guns a congrats that jingles and mingles with all the others in their in-box until it gets sent to the trash can.

Before e-mail, when we had something to say about a business issue, we thought about it. We considered it. We mulled it over in what used to be our unmediated, unwired minds. We consulted other people and maybe we even jotted down a few thoughts on a piece of paper, looked at it, crossed out a beau mot and substituted a better one. Then, at a meeting or in someone's office, we looked a fellow human in the eye and said our piece. Now, we hit reply, dash off a few thousand ill-considered words, cc everyone we can think of from the boss to the guy who stuffs the mailboxes, and spend the next month trying to repair the damage while the server groans under the weight of hundreds of equally ill-considered responses.

Before e-mail, managers used to spend time with the people they managed, learning about them, getting to know them, having conversations. Now our businesses are managed by strident, bold e-memos while their manager-authors cringe in their offices, terrified lest someone, one of those strangers who work for them, actually poke their head in and want to have a chat.

How did we manage before e-mail?

Very well, thank you.

THE GREAT DEBATE Scrolling through the ages, it's not hard to find communication systems vastly superior to e-mail. During the middle of the 18th century, for example, the Native Americans of the Great Plains developed a system--smoke signals--that beats e-mail hollow. Let's look at the aforementioned criteria:

* Ease of use To send e-mail, you need a computer, a provider and an internet connection. To receive e-mail, you need the same stuff. To send smoke signals, you need a fire and a blanket. To receive them, you need eyes.

WINNER: SMOKE SIGNALS. * Security As our IS people continually remind us, and as Bill Gates learned to his dismay, everything we commit to e-mail is accessible to anyone who wants to read it. Smoke signals, on the other hand, were a complete mystery to the U.S. Army, which is why Sitting Bull was able to assemble thousands at Little Bighorn while Gen. Custer was busy preening.

WINNER: SMOKE SIGNALS. * Scalability With e-mail, you can copy everyone in your address book, but if they're not already there, you have to find their addresses, then copy them into the cc field. Smoke signals can be read simultaneously by the whole state of North Dakota without doing anything special.

WINNER: SMOKE SIGNALS. * Clarity With the possible exception of mime, no medium has led to such confusion as e-mail. There's also the danger (you've done it; I've done it) of accidentally sending a message to A when you meant to send it to B. Smoke signals are never misunderstood.

WINNER: SMOKE SIGNALS. Need we go on? Smoke signals emblazoned their messages on the very arc of heaven itself. E-mail keeps our eyes glued to the aptly named terminal. For that reason alone, smoke signals are a clear winner.

What, finally, is e-mail good for? It's good for keeping in touch with friends and relatives with whom we have no wish to speak. It's good for reading the jokes that your old buddy in Philly has sent you (and a few hundred of his most intimate friends). It's good for receiving ads for things we don't need.

Do these things exalt the human spirit? I suggest they do not.

Managing Editor David Rosenbaum doesn't know he can be reached at

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