"The Morality & Metaphysics of Email",
by Michael Kinsley

Author: Michael Kinsley
Essay: The Morality & Metaphysics of E-Mail
Pub. in: Forbes ASAP: The Big Issue, p. 113
Date: December 2, 1996

The way the new technology has affected my working life most directly has nothing in particular to do with what I am producing. My product happens to be an Internet-based magazine, but this particular innovation would be just as transforming if my business were manufacturing paper clips. The innovation is email.

Until I came to Microsoft in January, I had never worked for a big corporation. So I was having a hard time sorting out all my new impressions. What was Microsoft (which prides itself, of course, on being a different kind of corporation) and what was (despite Microsoft's pretensions) corporate America in general? Shortly after I arrived, I met someone who'd just joined Microsoft from Nintendo North America -- a similar high tech, postindustrial, shorts-and-sandals sort of company, one would suppose. So I asked him, How is Microsoft different? He said, "At Microsoft, the phone never rings." And it's almost true. The ringing telephones that TV producers use as an all-purpose background noise to signify a business setting are virtually silent at Microsoft. At least in terms of intracompany communications, probably 99 percent take place through email. If you should happen to get an old-fashioned phone call, you may well be informed of that fact by email, even if the person who took the message is within eye-contact range.

Microsoft may still be a bit ahead of most of the rest of the country in developing an email culture, but I suspect it's only a tiny bit. Email is inevitable. Nineteen eighty-nine was the year you stopped asking people, "Do you have a fax machine?" and started asking, "What is your fax number?" Nineteen ninety was the year you started being annoyed (and, by around Christmastime), incredulous that anyone in the business or professional world would not have a fax number. Similarly, 1996 is the year you stopped asking people, "Do you have email?" and started asking, "What is your email address?" By the end of 1997 you will be indignant if anyone you're doing business with expects you to go to the trouble of communicating by less convenient methods.

This is an almost entirely positive development. Convenience aside, email is a marvelous medium of communication. It combines the immediacy of telephone or face-to-face talk with the thoughtfulness (or at least the opportunity for thoughtfulness) of the written word. At Slate we find it a wonderfully productive way to bounce around editorial ideas. And we use it in the online magazine as a medium of policy debate that we find intellectually superior to television chat.

Email has eased the burden of putting out a national magazine of politics and culture from Redmond, Washington (which is not the center of the universe, whatever some of its denizens may think). With a small budget and staff, we could not ordinarily afford to have a headquarters in Redmond plus bureaus in Washington and New York. But email enables us to spread the "headquarters" staff over all three places. Our East Coast representatives can pick up the local vibes in the traditional metropolitan manner (i.e., lunch) then plug back into Redmond in the modern manner (i.e., email). If you use email dozens of times a day -- and save it -- you end up with a pretty complete record of your activities and thoughts. As someone who (like many others) aspires to keep a diary but lacks the self-discipline, I find this comforting. Lawyers, of course, find it alarming, but you can't please everybody.

A social advantage of email is its egalitarianism. It's another blow to the old corporate culture in which Mr. Bigshot dictates letters and memos and the secretary types them, folds them, mails them, opens them at the receiving end, files them, and so on. Is there anyone in the business world who still thinks that he or she is too important to type? If so, that person had better wake up. Refusing to use a keyboard will soon be as anachronistic as, say, refusing to speak on the telephone.

To be sure, egalitarianism has its limits. The ease and economy of sending email, especially to multiple recipients, makes us all vulnerable to any bore, loony, or commercial or political salesman who can get our email address. It's still a lot less intrusive than the telephone, since you can read and answer or ignore email at your own convenience. But as normal people's email starts mounting into the hundreds daily, which is bound to happen, filtering mechanisms and conventions of etiquette that are still in their primitive stage will be desperately needed.

Another supposed disadvantage of email is that it discourages face-to-face communication. At Microsoft, where people routinely send email back and forth all day to the person in the next office, this is certainly true. Some people believe this tendency has more to do with the underdeveloped social skills of computer geeks than with Microsoft's role in developing the technology email relies on. I wouldn't presume to comment on that. Whether you think email replacing live conversation is a good or bad thing depends, I guess, on how much of a misanthrope you are. I like it.

Historians looking back on our time, I suspect, will have no doubt that the arrival of email was a good thing. For decades now historians have been complaining about the invention of the telephone. By destroying the art of letter writing, telephones virtually wiped out the historians' principal raw material. Email, however, has reversed that development. Historians of the twenty-first century will be able to mine rich veins of written -- and stored -- material. People's daily lives will be documented better than ever before. Scholars specializing in the twentieth century will be at a unique disadvantage compared both with their colleagues writing about the nineteenth or earlier centuries and with those writing about the twenty-first or later.

So 1996 is not just the year business embraced email. In a way, it is the year history started again.


Michael Kinsley is editor of Slate, an interactive magazine published by Microsoft ( http://www.slate.com/ ). He is former editor of The New Republic and the "American Survey" section of The Economist, and former cohost of CNN's Crossfire.

Reprinted for benturner.com with Mr. Kinsley's permission.

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