The Godfather: Peter Corris on email
Some time ago, it must have been in the early 1990s, I was writing a novel using an old Toshiba laptop and the MS Dos operating system, which all sounds very primitive now. I had heard vaguely of the new technology and wrote about a character communicating by ‘electronic mail’. An editor, better up on things, quickly changed it to ’email’.
It’s hard to believe that I was so ignorant of something that is now part of my daily life, as it is for hundreds of millions of others. I think I sent and received my first emails in 1998 – a late starter in what has proved to be the online marathon.
I left academia long before the digital revolution, but I’m told that on arriving at their desks some academics often face dozens of emails, some with long attachments, before being able to think, research or write. It’s a nightmare thought. When I tell academic friends that I average five or six emails a day and am disappointed if it drops to two or three, I get a look of envy. But then, the writing life carries no superannuation.
I used to be a frequent letter writer – to friends, family, my agent, organisations and so on, and received letters in return. I enjoyed writing them, tried to make them worth reading and had back some excellent letters from very good writers. Over the years I’ve sold my correspondence, along with manuscripts and other papers, to the State Library of NSW. I still sell my offerings but I’m very conscious that printed emails don’t have the same impact as hand-written or typed letters. They tend to be shorter and less carefully and thoughtfully written, given the modern pace of life.
At least printed emails can be expected to last for some time, unlike early photocopies and faxes. The fax, in particular, was the enemy of the archivist.
We hear stories of office workers communicating by email even though they share a workspace or are only a room or two apart. Presumably this is because they are too busy dealing with other emails to get up and cross the room or go next door.
Jean and I have adjacent workrooms but I’m happy to say we stand, take a few steps and talk face to face (or, admittedly, sometimes face to back) when we have something to say to each other. Too often, that’s me asking her to sort out a technological glitch I’ve got myself into. The exception, of course, is when we forward messages where the text itself is important rather than just the subject.
Before the availability of filters, spam was an annoyance. For a time I was plagued by shonks promising to increase the size of my penis. Now not much junk mail gets through and the finger flicks to the delete button in a Pavlovian response. I’m still an IT primitive and have really no idea what the cloud is or how it works.
I’m not knocking email. In particular the ability to communicate quickly with someone on the other side of the world is invaluable. I’m just glad that my inbox always has plenty of space to spare.
(*Correction: In last week’s column I said that as far as I was aware neither of my parents ever read the collection of Henry Lawson stories that was one of the few books in the house. Apparently I was too young to know. My sister, three years older, tells me that our father did read and enjoy the stories.)