- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2000

Every technology, says culture critic Neil Postman, has an intrinsic quality that alters the users.

More immediate than paper, electronic mail either lends itself to people's worst excesses or gives them a boldness beyond their normal scope. Authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," a new book about the Internet, say e-mail is a potent sociological force.

"E-mail levels the playing field for people intimidated in meetings," author David Weinberger says. "But people are beginning to realize e-mail is a bad vehicle for delivering personal criticism."

His co-author, Christopher Locke, says e-mail was first a tool for geeks, people not known for their social skills. Now, "It's surprising the depth of emotional relationship you get on e-mail."

However, culture critic Ken Myers, founder of Mars Hill Audio in Charlottesville, says e-mail's existence brought the impersonalization of the late 20th century to new heights. Unlike phone conversations, which retain some intimacy of communication, e-mail avoids human interaction.

"With e-mail," he wrote last year in Family Policy, "ideas are sent back and forth through words displayed on a monitor. This form of communication is highly disembodied and thus tends to feel impersonal. A handwritten letter has far more personality; even a typed letter requires a choice of paper stock."

E-mail would work better if people were masters of prose, he added, but "since valuing convenience over intimacy is so tempting, many e-mail messages are hastily written, often lacking the graces of proper capitalization, punctuation or a personal salutation. Most e-mail has the personality of a memo or of junk mail; it is just as hastily consumed as deleted."

Even though e-mail is no substitute for hearing a voice, hearing the ebb and flow of hesitation, humor, passion and stubbornness in grasping how a person thinks, Mr. Locke says it is here to stay. "This medium allows people to talk to each other directly," he says. "Now we can share information with each other instead of having it beamed to us as a passive, targeted audience."

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