Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Email vs Letter Writing

The Lede, a blog on the New York Times website, has a curious entry from yesterday called "Whither the Historians of Science in the Age of E-Mail?", has me arguing with myself over the pros and cons of email vs. the seemingly lost art of letter writing. I have written a few letters in my time, and rarely think to make a copy (who needs more paper, after all) so when I get a response, I can't quite remember what was in the original letter. Reading the response becomes sort of a treasure hunt, pouring of the words for clues as to what I had written about and most of the time there is enough evidence to piece it all together.

That is not a problem with email, especially with email clients like Gmail that create threads for each message you send, assuming you don't always create a new message when responding to an email. I often which text messaging was the same. It is rather frustrating to get the txt msg shrt hnd and not know to what the message is referring.

However, as has happened to me, once you delete an email, from the Inbox or Sent Message box, it is gone. There is no getting it back. And such actions must be done in order to create space, which was an issue before Gmail existed. So who knows what emails I have deleted from my other email account that might prove useful in crafting a story say, or researching a topic of interest.

Then again, paper is not immune to disaster either. It is quite combustible, after all, but you can decide on whether or not you want to keep it simply by scanning the contents instead of guessing by the subject line whether or not you want to go through the trouble to read it and see if it is worth keeping.

On the other hand, email doesn't quite disintegrate over time like paper. Email doesn't yellow at the edges or require gloves to handle it. But there also isn't the same feel you get from reading email that you get from holding and reading a letter.

So is one really better than the other? Will future historians lose out on something by having to read through email more so than letters? And won't future historians be so used to technology anyway that the idea of letter writing will seem, how to put it, archaic?

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