Afterthoughts: Remembering the Digital Revolution

Believe it or not, there was life before e-mail.

Illustration: Mike Austin

Remember when computers at the office, e-mail and the Internet were new? As I searched for a classic Afterthoughts for this month, I stumbled across columns I wrote in the mid-1990s, reporting from the front lines of the digital revolution. Finding them felt like falling into a time warp:

From October 1995’s “ByteMe:”

[Computers] have become the single greatest source of interoffice jealousy, rivalry, backstabbing and hurt feelings since God created the office romance. Everybody wants one on their desk. They don’t want to share it, and they want the best and fastest machine in the workplace.

Gossip spreads like wildfire whenever someone gets a new toy. “Hey, I hear accounting is getting PowerPCs. Can you believe it, man? Whose butt are they kissing?” Soon comes the self-pity: “Nobody loves me. I got no RAM. I got no modem. I got no flying toasters. Life sucks.”

You should definitely question your standing with the company when every time you ask for a floppy disk, your controller tosses you an America OnLine promotional disk she just tore off the cover of her MacUser catalog and tells you to reformat the thing yourself.

Modems and flying toasters? PowerPCs and floppy disks? How quaint! How fleeting. But computer envy endures. It’s turned out to be quite flexible, too, turning green at the sight of other people’s iPhones and BlackBerrys. What, you don’t have 3G? Loser.

From June 1996’s “E-mail Blues:”

We just got e-mail. Some of you, I know, have had it for years. For the rest of you, it’s no doubt in your future. We got e-mail here [at the magazine] because we wanted more communication. Of course, every business, family and romantic unit in America is dissatisfied with the quantity and quality of its communication these days. But here …, someone decided that if only we had e-mail, then everyone who needed to would finally start communicating with each other. The result—people are now calling each other demanding to know why their e-mail is being ignored.

Because, of course, people who already ignore flashing red lights on their answering machines, messages in their mailbox or yellow stick-ems tacked to their own foreheads absolutely will not check their e-mail. I include myself in this category. I only check my office e-mail when my editor, the only person who ever e-mails me and who works in an office 10 feet away, yells out, “I e-mailed you something! Take a look!”

At home? Sure, I’m “online.” I’ve “surfed the ’Net.” I even have an address on the side streets of the Information Superhighway. But do I check my e-mail? Rarely. To me, e-mail is the least urgent form of communication.

In 2009, I’d give anything to have just one e-mail correspondent. I’ve joined the ranks of professionals who brag about how busy they are by complaining how swamped they are by e-mail. I’m sending something like 500 a month, and receiving, well, it feels like every e-mail out there, every single one of them absolutely oozing with urgency (especially the ones I send. Read my forwarded link! Now!) E-mail has become work and life itself. And yet, the 2009 me has forgotten that, in 1996, I once knew this:

Granted, e-mail has made it easier to send messages, easier than walking downstairs or upstairs or leaving a note in someone’s box. So have telephones, answering machines, pagers and cell phones and all the other inventions that promise to solve our communication problems. But all these inventions miss the point, because the problem with communication isn’t that it’s hard to send messages.

It’s that no one ever listens.  

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kathryn Drury Wagner is on leave. While she’s away, we’ll be running "classic" Afterthoughts from different writers who have penned the column over the years.