- Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 18 February 2009 05:00
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It wasn’t much of a news item. I guess it was a slow news day, because it got picked up by news services all over the country. But the White House, shortly after President Obama took office, announced that it had lost its e-mail service.
The outage didn’t last long, but the Obama White House, perhaps one of the most technology savvy administrations we’ve ever had, was at a loss as to how to handle the situation.
How do you live without e-mail?
Fortunately, some of the older staff, thinking back to their younger days, managed to keep things rolling. Instead of the constant clicking of keyboards and blackberries, the staff used the phone, and in several cases talked with their cohorts directly.
In many modern offices these are all but forgotten skills. The White House staff even found a stash of “while you out” phone message pads, no doubt left over from the Nixon Administration, so that bewildered White House staff could return phone calls.
Fortunately, before they reached the end of their patience, the e-mail servers, the gadgets which make modern office e-mail work, came back on line. Once again, the first President ever to have a Blackberry of his own, could, like the rest of us, go back to the constant e-mailing that defines modern work life.
I am, I have to admit it, as hooked on e-mailing and instant messaging as anyone can be. I have been through several blackberries, and yes, have had the infamous blackberry thumb.
For those of you not up on these terms, blackberry thumb is what you get when you hold your blackberry in one hand and use your thumb to send messages. It’s a form of muscle strain. The only cure is to stop trying to send messages using one hand, or even to stop using the blackberry to send messages altogether.
Though it’s estimated that 73% of Americans, and nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide, have some kind of access to e-mail, there is a move in some companies to have e-mail free days. This may or may not be a good idea, but the goal is to encourage more interpersonal contact. Rather than e-mailing customers, these companies want their sales agents, to talk to them directly.
The same is true for their fellow employees.
Instead of e-mailing the person in the next cubicle, which is more common than you think, they are encouraging face-to-face contact. It’s been noted that the social skills for some employees decline because they become so dependent on e-mail. The hope is that an e-mail free Friday might reverse this trend.
There also one thing many email users forget. E-mail, once it’s sent takes on a life of its own. An e-mail, admitting to some indiscretion, voicing a particular prejudice, or sent went you’re angry, can, depending on who you send it to, be forwarded to possibly hundreds, if not thousands of people.
In Virginia e-mail sent to or by public officials is bound by the requirements of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. In other words, if you send an e-mail to your county supervisor that you would prefer not be shared with the rest of world, be careful. There have been several instances, all relatively recent, where citizens and various groups have requested copies of the e-mail traffic for county supervisors or local school boards.
While not that exciting I doubt that the citizens writing their public officials realized that their messages, once they hit that send button, had become public property.
E-mail has another serious drawback.
It makes it a lot easier to send a message when you’re angry or when you don’t know all the facts. I know, because I have sent a couple like that. Perhaps one of the best teachers in this regard was Winston Churchill. Winston didn’t have e-mail, but he did write a lot of letters, and some of them, depending upon his mood could be caustic. So, Churchill, having learned his lesson over time directed his staff to hold his outgoing letters until the next day.
His files include dozens of letters that he wrote and never sent. You can do that with e-mail too, and a lot of people would be wise to learn that feature. I have.
The number of e-mails that get sent each day probably numbers in the billions. That means that e-mail free Fridays could just be a passing fad. But from time to time, it might be nice, if instead of an e-mail, we actually spoke to our office mates, or that fellow down the hall. You know, the one you’ve e-mailed, but never met. He might turn out to be a lot more interesting in person.