Email has been around since 1965, when it's alleged that MIT created it as a way for time sharing mainframe users to communicate with each other. It didn't really get big, though, until the PC/Internet revolution of the 1980s when personal computers were made affordable and internet service providers were born, allowing non-academic civilians access to the world wide web. AOL's comically mechanical catch-phrase "You've Got Mail" heralded the beginning of email's reign as the communication of choice among the middle and upper class both at home and at work.
Like every human invention before it, email not only solved problems, but created new ones. On one hand, you could instantly communicate with someone anywhere in the world with just the click of a button...think Morse Code without the lengthy study on how to both speak and understand what you were trying to communicate. On the other hand, you could instantly communicate with someone...anywhere in the world...with just the click of a button. People suddenly found themselves drafting responses to sometimes emotionally charged issues, like nuclear weapons or what kind of potatoes to have with meatloaf that night.
Email, and even IMs, have always reminded me of the illusion of safety and invincibility we have in our cars while we drive...one minute, someone is standing politely in line in front of you at Target, buying Vitamin Water and underwear. The next minute, that same polite stranger is honking his horn furiously and flipping off strangers because they sat at the stop light 2.4 seconds after it turned green. Why? What happens in people's minds when we seal ourselves in a glass and plastic cage? It transforms otherwise courteous, civic-minded people into profanity-laced toddlers. The answer is simple, really...it's the societal disconnect. We're primates, after all, and most of our behavior is driven by our society and desire to be accepted. We don't have other humans standing in close proximity to us, threatening judgement and rejection; we view the other cars as just that...cars. They are just machines operated by nameless, faceless strangers who somehow cannot drive as well as we can, who don't have anywhere to be that is more important than our own destination, and can never make that turn into oncoming traffic as quickly as we could have.
Email is a lot like that; we don't feel we're writing a human being so much as an email address. It's easy to hide behind a screen and say things that we'd never dare say to someone's face. For example, if a co-worker who always seemed to lose paperwork stopped by my desk and asked me to give her a copy of something I had already turned into her two weeks ago, I'd say something like "Oh, I thought I got that to you. I can make you a copy, though; one sec." I'd be a little irritated that her disorganization was interrupting my day, but I'd make the copy and move on. If she shot me an email, though, something would happen in my animal brain...I'd go for the jugular. I'd draft a snarky but professional response, citing her repeated failure to keep track of what I gave her, mentioning what a hassle and disruption it was to make copies over and over again, and I'd copy her supervisor on it. What's more? I'm not alone. That email would set off a flurry of similar responses, wasting time and energy (professional and emotional) that would yield little more than a silent, tense ride in the elevator the next morning when my co-worker and I ran into each other. Why not just confront her in person, instead of firing off emails? Because it's easier to attack a faceless email address than a person who offers you candy as you sit at their desk.
I am guilty of this; I freely admit it. I dehumanize other drivers, co-workers, even my drag kings when they send me text messages or notes on MySpace or Facebook. I answer abruptly, distantly, instead of observing the patience and courtesy I'd typically extend them if we were in person. Sometimes, it's because I'm having a bad day; other times, though, it's just because I see a machine, and not their actual faces, asking me for the 45th time when we'll have a new website up. I do try, though, to remember that while it may seem easy and satisfying to dehumanize people while in my car, via text message or through email...they are still living, breathing people who will associate my rudeness with me, not with my email address or Honda.