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Email: Wither communication?

Appeared in the column 'Time-out' on the edit page of The New Indian Express on 14th December 2010

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The manifold utilities of e-mail, or electronic mail, is indeed a boon for mankind, however, as Murphy’s Law stands testimony to, if a product can be used for the right purpose, it can very well be improperly utilised. Examples for this dictum are available in abundance – probably numbering equal to the number of corruption scandals in North Block, New Delhi, ever since the country attained independence. Just as the objectives for which the Swiss army-knife, a versatile device no doubt, may be used in addition to those determined by its designer (Victorinox, are you listening?), it could do us a world of good if we analyse the reasons for which the all-pervading e-mails are used (or misused, actually).

The reasons why e-mails or electronic mails are abused in a manner akin to drug or substance abuse are not too far to seek. It must be agreed without doubt that e-mail is an altogether new avenue of communication, and that it is the symbolism of the collared worker. Communication by telephone is passé, for the mail that you just finished typing would have reached its destination in no time at all, although the intended recipient may claim the opposite. More so, if its contents are not exactly desirable to him/her, proving to be an indispensable scenario at the workplace or between warring spouses (“Must have been some network problem”: is usually a common refrain). Behold the greatest paradox: e-mails, ideally meant for communication, can also be its greatest obstacle.

Another reason why e-mails have the shroud of futility (or the perception that if you are checking your mail, you are merely whiling away time), strongly associated with them is due to the emergence of the concept of ‘chain mails’. This concept works on the basis of an avalanche-like disbursement of information, usually sensational. For the uninitiated, information is packaged in a chain mail such that the reader is overwhelmed by a wave of sympathy and downright stupidity, brainwashing him/her to commit any stupid act that would be outlined in the mail’s epilogue (Remember: This is X; she lost her parents in the twin-towers air crash. Red Cross and UN have agreed to donate a penny every time this mail gets forwarded to someone. Help her by sending this mail to as many people as possible). Variations include suggestive or informative mails that contain ‘vital’ information, which outline to the reader at the very beginning that this information may not be found anywhere else (at least, they tell you the truth about that!). Such mails are usually titled: Fw: ATM cards best work when inserted into a teller machine or, Fw: Fw: Fw Shocking but true, Coca Cola contains 100% carbonated water. The frequency of repetition of ‘Fw’ within the mail title is, invariably, indirectly proportional to human productivity after reading the mail and in proportion to the gullibility of the correspondence.

A friend of mine, after digesting the contents of one such mail, believes that the government is planning to decrease taxes on petroleum products temporarily, encouraging all to buy IC-engine powered vehicles, only to hike them later. As part of his anti-espionage schema, he declares that he will spread the message via chain mails to as many persons as possible, until state heads and OPEC-officials sustain astronomical revenue losses and meet him in person to implore him to waive off the embargo!

Marketing, or the art of selling ice to an Eskimo, or a bazooka to a monk, could never had it better. E-mail now offered advertisers the platform to just whisper and obtain an echo around the world, as messages started spreading as rapid as the common cold or flu, giving rise to terms like ‘virulent marketing’, whose basic premise is eerily similar to solicitation calls/messages synonymous with cellphone networks. It was as if all the flood gates of a reservoir were opened simultaneously, leading to an unprecedented deluge. Marketeers were now able to catch the suspecting as well as the trustful buyer by surprise. It should not come as a surprise to me if you received a mail from an unknown sender, soliciting the usage of your credit card as you are reading this sentence!

What’s more, sellers utilised the opportunity to push forward merchandise, which most buyers would hesitate at picking before looking around and then urgently stuff into their cart at the supermarket or at the chemist and casually avert their glance when the person at the counter picks up that particular product (usually, potency pills or contraceptives) for billing. The online world offered such eager, but shy customers a Venus fly-trap like transaction setting, as the authenticity of the transaction needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Persons who receive a minimum of four to five mails on a daily basis, urging them to purchase Viagra or Cyalis at discounted rates from alien sources would attest to this fact. It is said that this phenomenon and its closely-linked ally, pornography, comprise close to 90 per cent of the total traffic in the internet, which means, some of such transactions must have met with success!

Further, such hapless individuals also need to contend with financial fraud mails, usually Nigerian in origin, that promise the reader of billions of dollars for a nominal payment. Wonder why such persons do not allow for the deduction of the quoted sum from the promised amount.
The scant regard for grammar while corresponding via e-mail has been well documented and needs no introduction, for, the division between its right and wrong usage has, for all purposes, ceased to exist, leading to a free-for-all scenario, where any concession towards subverting rules is acceptable as long it is in vogue with the majority of the netizens. Suddenly, the very essentials of the language have now become roadblocks for communication in a country such as ours where English exists in innumerable forms in union with the local language, and, at times, may be barely distinguishable from it.

The irony about connectivity by the virtual world is that a person may boast of having a thousand followers on Twitter and hundreds of friends and friend requests on Facebook or Orkut, but he/she may not be able to list out the names of at least two neighbours, without having to pause or strain their memory?

Who said communication was the exchange of ideas and information?

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