New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Hardcover, $19.95

Don’t press that button!

Reading this little book prompted some personal recollecting, stretching back to pre-email times in the news business. Several scenes come to mind: the moment I went to work at a newsroom computer screen for the first time, probably in the late 1970s; the realization in the late 1980s that the contents of an entire issue of Maine Times, where I was later editor, were coming together via fax; the first time a writer transmitted a story to me over the phone; and finally when a couple of relatives, one of them a college professor, first began corresponding with me via email. These recollected moments (and my memories of each are quite clear) were transformative: new technology had made something possible and the world wasn’t to be the same again.

And so it has been with email, or e-mail as I’ve been in the habit of writing it. Working Waterfront came along (in 1993) before most of us began communicating regularly via computer. The makings of early issues came to us in the mail, by fax, by phone; then via various twitchy systems that allowed the words to gurgle their way through phone couplers, then modems, into our rudimentary computers, which in turn set them in type. Email became integral to the operation, I suppose, in the early 2000s, and it took a while to get going everywhere. Islands had connectivity issues far longer than other places; reliable phone service didn’t reach some of them until relatively recently.

All of this is a long way of saying that email is one of those little things, like movable type or electricity, that Changed Everything. And now we have a really good book about it, written by a couple of guys who know what they’re talking about because of the work they do every day. David Shipley is deputy editorial page editor and op-ed page editor at the New York Times; Will Schwalbe is editor in chief at Hyperion Books. On a daily basis, each handles hundreds of emails from would-be contributors, aspiring authors, readers, political types and every other sort of person one can think of with an interest in getting his or her name into print. Twenty years ago, folks in Shipley’s and Schwalbe’s line of work (which is my line of work too) handled stacks of correspondence on paper (“letters,” we called them) and answered constant phone calls. Operators and secretaries, if they were available, helped handle the calls (remember the pink message slips?), sort the mail, get the typed replies to the Post Office. Now virtually all of this communicating is handled by email. The operators and secretaries have become executive assistants or something else; the editors are left with the email.

Schwalbe and Shipley have considered email’s effects on communication — and, by extension, on relationships. They’ve explored what it means to make the sending of a note so simple that it can get away from us before we have time to think about it. Send is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we push the “send” button before we think about it. They look at what it means to send copies of emails to the world beyond the person we’re writing to…what goes through the mind(s) of the recipient(s) when we vent our anger via email…what can go wrong when emails end up on the screens of persons who weren’t supposed to see them. It’s all so easy, so seductive, so incredibly dangerous. Enron came a-tumblin’ down because of emails; so did “heckuva job” Michael Brown at FEMA; so did Alberto Gonzales. Richard Nixon did himself in with secret audiotapes in the 1970s; today his self-destructive tendencies would undoubtedly be played out in emails.

So read this book by all means. Then, if you must, sit down and write a review on your computer. And then — and this is what’s important — re-read what you’ve written before you press “send” and kick your thoughts out into the ether. If you aren’t careful, you’ll get what you deserve.

David D. Platt is editor of Working Waterfront.