MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Essayist David Shipley recently co-wrote a handbook for e-mail users, something of a Strunk and White for the Web. And Shipley has some advice for a politician who is so disenchanted with e-mail, but he's decided to go offline.
Mr. DAVID SHIPLEY (Deputy Editorial Page Editor; Op-Ed Editor, New York Times): This week, Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey swore off e-mail. He's not going to use it. He's not going to use a BlackBerry, a secret Gmail account, an iPhone.
State Republicans had filed a lawsuit to force him to release his e-mail correspondence with a powerful union president who also happened to be his former companion. The governor said it was easier and safer to go offline. He's not alone.
While Bill Clinton made a big deal of e-mailing from the Oval Office, George W. Bush announced early on that as president he wasn't going to communicate by e-mail because he was concerned about privacy. The president was foresighted. In the last couple of years, the information superhighway has been littered with the twisted wreckage of e-mails gone awry, many of them from political figures.
There was Michael Brown, the FEMA director, who e-mailed about dog sitters during the very worst days of Hurricane Katrina. Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who forgot that racy instant messages to interns could be printed out. And those lawyers in the Justice Department who conducted really sensitive conversations about firing certain U.S. attorneys while on their BlackBerrys.
So I sympathize with Governor Corzine. But I also think he's wrong. Look, e-mail is hard. It's relatively new. There's no rulebook. It can get us fired, humiliated, subpoenaed. We do it hundreds of times a day, and often under intense pressure. But it's also fantastic. World-changing. Do we just give up on it?
How about writing better. How about a little more thought about what we are saying on e-mail before hitting that send key? How about remembering not to forget that e-mails are searchable and archivable? How about remembering not to say or do on e-mail things that we wouldn't dream of saying or doing in person. How about trying all this, instead of giving up?
Instead of quitting, why doesn't Governor Corzine turn this into a moment to teach us how to e-mail better. Should New Jersey schools teach e-mail the way they once taught typing and composition?
I'm not being flip. E-mail is the dominant form of business communication today. The American economy runs on it. The governor could usher in an era of e-mail education. A curriculum could explain the virtues of the subject line. Emphasize the importance of inserting tone. It could also remind us that there are times when we should get off e-mail and pick up the phone, or walk down the hall to have a chat. As the governor knows, there are situations where e-mail is just not appropriate.
But abandoning e-mail altogether doesn't sit well with me. It's vaguely undemocratic because e-mail is so democratic - with a small D. It breaks down barriers. You can reach just about anyone. Plus, a lot of people don't have the luxury of forsaking e-mail. Should our politicians?
Governor Corzine said, we'll go back to the '20s and have direct conversations with people. Well, he's partly right. We do need to work harder to get off e-mail, to communicate in person. But I think he's wrong about the '20s, the start of the Depression, fascism? And he's really wrong about e-mail.
NORRIS: David Shipley is the op-ed page Editor of the New York Times. He's also the co-author of "Send: The Essential Guide To E-mail for Office and Home."
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