Insight Column By Michael Bassett

Canada Post’s advertising campaign extolling the benefits of snail mail has made me realize how e-mail is changing the way we communicate.

E-mail is creeping into every facet of our lives. It has spread from the workplace to homes and now to cell phones and pagers. People are becoming so reliant on e-mail they feel the need to have immediate access. It’s not rare for people I know to check their e-mail five, six, seven times a day and to have received new mail each time.

My boss, my co-workers and my friends are all communicating with me by e-mail now. The problem is that the art of letter writing and conversation is lost in an e-mail. Contrary to what movies like You’ve got Mail would have you believe, e-mail most often involves the most inane — and very often misspelled — bits of information.

Traditional letters had a format and required more thought because letters tended not to be longer than the time and effort taken to write them. With e-mail’s immediacy and ease I’m more likely to receive an e-mail asking, “What’s up tonight?” or, “Can you stay late tomorrow?” than a well-thought-out letter.

But even when e-mails amount to more than one line and are incredibly eloquent, they are not permanent. Unlike letters, e-mails are usually deleted, not kept. Most e-mail servers impose space limitations for mailboxes and automatically erase old messages once the limit is reached, and most people just don’t print and keep their e-mail.

Letters have contributed to some of the most profound developments in literature, politics and economics. By virtue of the published letters of numerous scholars and world leaders, we’ve been able to better understand the evolution of their thoughts, and at times the letters have offered more insight than the books. E-mail is robbing us of this ability.

People often use e-mail to replace the phone. I find myself having to turn increasingly to my e-mail to have “conversations” with people I see every day.

The ability to control the content of e-mail “conversations” gives the writer the ability ignore anything they don’t want to discuss.

Canada Post is not the only company that needs to be concerned about the rise of e-mail. It won’t be long before phone companies start playing ads aimed at “making phone conversations hip.”