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BEHIND SCREENS

Distance lends enchantment to the view. The best view, it may be argued, is no view at all precisely the effect that emails aim to produce, even when they are sent to a colleague in the next cubicle in lieu of face-to-face conversation. A survey conducted among office workers in Britain has found this situation to be the most enchanting, for 68 per cent of the respondents said that emails cut down on the chance of awkward questions and that of having to shoulder extra work. The honesty of such excuses is disarming, but there may be broader, more metaphysical tendencies as well. There is a peculiar addiction to conducting life via keyboard, mouse and screen, a sense of control that is deeply satisfactory. It is not only a relief to keep the colleague or client at bay, but it is also a joy to abandon the niceties of conversation or even of punctilious letter-writing, for informal emails are famously undemanding in matters of grammar and spelling.

Is conversation on the decline? Certainly not on the cellphone, but there the interlocutors are not physically present. Distance is essential, but perhaps machines are even more enchanting. It is quite normal nowadays to get together with friends and relatives and spend the time mostly on the cellphone. It would be prehistoric to talk about good manners in traditional social situations, such as meeting or writing letters. Such situations themselves are rapidly falling out of use; the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom, for example, is feeling the pinch as people gradually abandon letter-writing. The freedom from language rules offered by texts on the phone or by emails is probably indicative of other kinds of freedom too, one of which can be seen in the explosion of communication on social networking sites and chat sites. The lure of the ever-growing virtual world can easily overwhelm the inescapable realities and troublesome proprieties of face-to-face contact. It is so much more comfortable to have a screen keeping reality at bay. The view continues to be enchanting.