I was required recently to write to my sponsor after having attained an Arkwright scholarship, and while going through the nowadays almost unfamiliar and alien motions of printing a word-processed document, enclosing it in a brown envelope, handwriting a destination and applying a stamp, in order for a recipient to open the envelope and move information from that sheet of paper into their consciousness, I wondered how anybody could still use this relatively expensive, time-consuming, inefficient and slow process for actual communication of raw data, particularly plain-text messages and linked information. Most of the steps seem so unnecessary when compared with the capabilities of modern technology: so much paper is wasted on envelopes which serve only to enclose the information being sent; so many man hours are taken up sorting mail and delivering it *physically* to destinations when it can be transferred painlessly and electronically through the network of cables which is our internet; and so much effort is expended packaging up and ripping open mail when it can be done at the click of a button.
If the point is to convey an idea or data, such as a reminder to a friend about an event, email is infinitely superior. It’s far more reliable than snail mail, especially if you have to rely on Royal Mail; it is geared towards delivering the message as fast as possible even to the extent of splitting the message into parts and sending them separate ways, hence you don’t need to wait several days for your recipient to receive your message; and of course it’s (for most people) completely free. Plus it has functionality for interactivity – mail clients provide the recipient with a ‘reply’ button rather than simply a reply destination which must be reproduced on paper, and linked / referenced information is much enhanced (contrast hyperlinks with ISBN numbers or references to publications).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying snail mail is at all useless; quite the contrary as I believe at times it can be the only appropriate way of doing something. To cite an example of such occasions, the letter to my sponsor, in my opinion, was written not really to communicate any specific data but to, in a rather subtle way, impress and leave a good impression. I was requested to introduce myself and include my GCSE results, the ultimate aim of which, surely in this case, being to leave some good impression to stimulate a response and hopefully pave the way for a good sponsor-student relationship. Email’s optimisation for speed is therefore unlikely to be appropriate on this occasion since it may possibly give the impression that communication with my sponsor is so unimportant that I’m trying to spend as little time on it as I can – hardly a good impression. A posted letter however gives the impression that time (and money for the stamp) has been put into communication and therefore that this said communication must be of high importance to me. Letters are also obviously tangible and therefore give me a more solid existence on the side of the recipient, complete with a personal touch – a signature – to prove my existence as a person. Don’t forget also that presentation is generally vastly easier to manipulate in mail since it’s a very literally WYSIWIG situation, while email relies on the recipient’s mail client’s settings and preferences; hence things like layout can be conceived with much more confidence in fidelity of reproduction at the recipient’s end than email.
However having said that, email seems such a huge step forwards that it makes me wonder whether, other than for instances in which communication is less about getting text data from A to B than about sending a specific message or impression (or for legal purposes which involve tangible signatures), people who know how to use email still actually use snail mail to communicate data.