Often irrelevant and proud of it

Yes, I am back on Terra Australis and wanting to thank those of you who e-mailed me in the past 13 months - my replies were often long in coming, but I appreciate your efforts to stay in touch.

Speaking of staying in touch, Frank Devine writes his regular "That's Language" column for The Sydney Morning Herald, and a very enjoyable read it always is. But I came down with a mild case of umbrage after reading a recent effort (29/1/2000). With the Herald's typical unrestrained alliteration, it's called "Oh bugger, it's Big Brother", where Devine likens the "super-terse, almost grunting language that is e-mail ritual" with the authorised language of "new-speak" in George Orwell's 1984.

I see this as another example of confusing the medium with the message. I would agree that e-mail can be an abrupt, almost brutal way to communicate. I remember composing a longish and heartfelt e-mail to a friend in the USA, outlining some plans of mine, asking about the progress of his work, and enquiring as to his general welfare and that of his lovely family. Back came the one-word reply: "Great".

E-mail doesn't have to be like that; Devine, however, lists his reasons for lapsing into "e-mail newspeak".

First up, he cites the small screen of a computer, which offers "no invitation to expansiveness" of expression. My advice is simple: make the e-mail window bigger, Frank. The average 15in screen has about the same surface area as an A4 piece of paper; what more do you need?

He does, however, hit the proverbial nail when he notes that "nosy strangers" reduce e-mail privacy and encourage brevity. Too true, too true. I spent an eye-popping session in a Saigon e-mail emporium reading a fellow backpacker's e-mail. I wasn't reading over her shoulder as much as shoulder-to-shoulder, packed like lemmings as we were into the steamy room, each monitor literally touching the next. Besides, I figure she was probably reading my e-mail, too . . .

Devine also blames the "globe-girdling speed of e-mail". This argument suggests that a fast method of communication results in short words and short sentences, rather than words and sentences of whatever length delivered quickly. Well, there's no need to rush; what about writing offline? If your e-mail system doesn't allow that, then try this visualisation exercise: pretend that the screen saver that kicks in or the sound of the hard drive powering-down while you're composing that long, florid e-mail, is actually a butler making a well-trained withdrawal to stand silently among the potted palms at the rear of the drawing room. He's still there, ready to serve whenever he's required. There's no rush. Technology serves you, not the reverse.

Devine's evidence that e-mail doesn't have to be so much grunting after all is a beautifully written note he has come across, describing a performance of Vivaldi's music. It is a lovely, descriptive e-mail, but Devine asserts that it reminds him of "the sheer luxury of calculated irrelevance, which e-mail seeks to eliminate". This is just plain wrong - I take pride in the fact that 80 per cent of my e-mails are completely irrelevant! E-mail is a great medium, so versatile for both the irrelevant and the relevant, the germane and the plain silly. I'll send this article to my editor via e-mail. I'll e-mail a new joke to my sister, starved as she is in the US of some off-colour Australian humour. I'd even e-mail the Prime Minister if he had an e-mail address. (Come on, John, there's a new century to embrace.) This is not to denigrate those who wield a pen. I admire the disciplined souls who hand-write letters, because I am addicted to cut-and-paste editing and my handwriting is an ugly scrawl. E-mail, though, is not the exclusive domain of the terse, hyper-relevant business deal. It belongs to all, gently encourages the slow of sentence, and embraces the irrelevant. Now, if we could only find a way to stop junk mail.

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