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In Praise of E-mail

May 10, 2000

The "I Love You" bug occasioned another outburst of attacks on technology. We were warned that email is not safe and can even be treacherous. There are potential dangers hidden in every message, even national security risks (says Sen. Fred Thompson). It is said that we had better get government involved to impose penalties and regulate the medium to make the world a safer place, a world safer than one entrepreneurs can produce working on their own.

This is all nonsense. Even with the occasional bug–-easily recognizable as suspicious attachments and correctable with anti-virus software--e-mail has dramatically improved the quality of life. For example, a few years ago I had lost contact with three close friends. Aside from Christmas cards and the rare long-distance phone call, we were out of touch, a sad-but-necessary cost of growing up and the changes that come with respective professional lives and families. So it went for a decade--until the glories of email.

Now, when interesting news comes along, I hear from all three friends in minutes. We compare reactions, argue points, and laugh at each other’s idiosyncracies. Our friendship no longer consists only of memories. Our friendship lives in the present. This is possible because of e-mail.

Before email (which has widely available only for ten years), the phrase "you have mail" meant that there were letters in the mailbox out on the curbside, which were hauled by trucks from a government building, which sorted them after they were delivered from another government building, which stored them after a government employee picked them up from your house, after someone else had put them in a government-owned box.

E-mail makes communication a low-cost affair, and at a time when many of our families are spread out around the globe--my mother-in-law is in Saudi Arabia!--e-mail means that they can maintain their ties without incurring high time and money costs.

In many ways, it is better than a phone call, which requires that the other person drop everything to speak with you. The phone requires what economists call "a double coincidence of wants"-–both parties have to value talking to each other in real time above every other activity they could conceivably be undertaking. In truth, that rarely happens, so at least one party to a phone call is often irritated (however slightly) at the call.

As well, e-mail is leagues above a letter, which involves time costs that many of us don't have anymore. But what about the romance of the letter? It's lovely, but time comes at a premium. If you need to communicate with someone, would you rather he get the message in one minute or one week? There’s no contest.

The emergence of e-mail reasserts the cause of classical liberalism, which has taken it on the chin over the last few decades. This is the ideological movement that, according to the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, "started with the Renaissance, continued in the Enlightenment, and produced both capitalism, representative government
and the individuals' civic rights: freedom of conscience, of thought, of speech, and of all other methods of communication."

The great Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages, and even Rousseau, Locke, and Jefferson, would have loved e-mail. It empowers individuals and strengthens the human ties that elevate and improve society. It also provides another check on the modern state, giving us a means to talk to each other rather than depend only on official organs for correspondence, information, and opinion.

And no longer are the fastest and most efficient forms of communication available only to the rich and powerful. You don't need to be a wealthy donor or a saucy White House intern to get through to the president of the United States. Just find his e-mail address on the Internet, and send him a note.

Like any new technology, e-mail brings problems that didn't exist before. Ever since Watergate, no president has allowed secret recording devices to be used in the White House, even though they were a staple of every president since FDR. As Nixon conveniently discovered that a tape could be erased, Clinton has learned that e-mails can become lost.

Among the Justice Department's penalties against Microsoft in its antitrust suit include the requirement that the company not delete any e-mails it writes for four years and make them available to federal regulators at a moment's notice. Meanwhile, once the Clinton Administration found its e-mails, it claimed executive privilege on them. These are issues which would not have made any sense a decade ago.

Consider the computer virus. A computer virus is like a crank call that can break your telephone. In another age, the phrase "I love you" and the word "virus" would have brought to mind thoughts of syphilis or herpes. Now, these phrases more readily conjure descriptions of the ILOVEYOU virus that recently brought down the computer systems of the FBI, the military, Interpol, and other government bureaus.

But to those of us who use e-mail, computer viruses and the occasional embarrassing computer record are a necessary evil with which to contend. Like automobile crashes, electric power failures, and even iron-shaped burns on our dress shirts, this is a problem that reflects part of the costs we must incur if we are to utilize liberating technology. Over time, markets develop to deal with these problems, and those that choose to take advantage of the technology willingly assume the risks that come with them.

It is no different with e-mail. Overall, the benefits will be seen to far outweigh the costs. A few of my friends-–Luddites all–-eschew this technology, which is fine. Markets respect personal autonomy and don't force products on anyone. They can still go postal if they so desire. In the meantime, my circle of close friends is increasingly defined in terms of those whose addresses feature not a street name but an @.


Christopher Westley teaches economics at Jacksonville State University. Send him MAIL.

SEE ALSO In Praise of Computer Bugs.

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