The juggernaut of the email part 2: weaponisation

We live in the age of communication, the knowledge economy we are told. Whereas the pre- email individual was buried behind closed doors, letters that had to be sent and layers of complex sociological networks that had to be penetrated to reach other people, today, anyone can get behind a keyboard and, either through email or indeed social media, press a button and their point of view is broadcast, possibly to thousands of others. 

It is no doubt an emancipation to be able to reach someone on the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, or to reach multiple readers at once, things that were totally unfathomable just a handful of decades ago.

However, as we have seen in the gruesome catalogue of human history, technology does not always lead to more humanity. It seems that the easier it is to do things and the more powerful the means, the greater the risk for someone to simply make other people’s lives miserable because of it. 

Have you ever found yourself in an email exchange wondering why none of it is happening face-to-face and then realised it’s because everything is being recorded, probably for ulterior motives? The tone of email exchanges of this manner are often stifled, legalistic and contrived to the point of being blatantly loaded. They are not exactly “nice” conversations and completely different to the tone you would experience in a live conversation, creating schizoid  parallel universes from the passing smile to the carefully crafted message, like meeting Dr cheerful small talk by day but Mr nasty email by night.

To be clear, this might be necessary when someone feels that they need to be protected, but in that case, it’s not really an exchange that’s taking place, it’s more like a deposition preparing for a tribunal. The quality of exchange this sort of song and dance creates is defensive rather than freely expressive. A war of words as the saying goes.

Hence Western  logocentric culture has not only sacralised the written word but made it infinitely more powerful than the spoken word because of its legal weight (although in some countries, like Switzerland, oral contracts are binding, they are, of course, much harder to prove). Emails of this nature are like traps being laid.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulacra”, meaning fake representations of reality. But which is which? Where is the truth? In the conversation or the email exchange?

Then there’s the curious phenomenon of copying people on emails. There are two types of copying: those that are necessary because it is indispensable that others be made aware of the mail for technical reasons, and those that are there to create some sort of emotional effect. This can be copying people on messages of love and gratitude or, unfortunately, to embarrass and blame. Have you ever written to one person but then in response suddenly seen dozens of people appear on copy? It’s a bit bizarre if you ask me: a type of ambush.

Group emails become out of control when one person responds to the sender copying everyone else, especially if it is to insult them, like a public shaming contest.

Blind copying is a fascinating construct too: sending an email to someone but not letting that person know that you are including someone else on the message seems fundamentally dishonest, don’t you think?

In these ways, email is often weaponised. It is not used as a communication tool, on the contrary, it is a stone to throw at someone else, possibly in front of many other people or, more perversely, in front of an audience that the person getting hurt cannot even see and does not even know is there. 

Hopefully, as we become more and more used to the powerful means we have to communicate, we will use technology wisely and humanely to look after one another, to send messages of goodwill and peace.

(Photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash)

One thought on “The juggernaut of the email part 2: weaponisation”

  1. Your cautionary tale seems aimed at people in the Western workplace; yet in international settings, people often come from many cultural and national backgrounds. So why place the onus on people who are “Western and logocentric”? I suggest the vernacular of email is basically universal. You might be romanticizing oral cultures without realizing it.

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