The publication of private emails by Colin Powell has spread panic in Washington. Now nobody feels safe. Some prominent people have even deleted their entire email accounts, fearing that their private messages will be hacked and revealed to the world. It hasn’t been the leaking of official secrets of the kind associated with WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden that has caused the present alarm; it has been the exposure of the ordinary gossip on which Washington thrives.
Powell, a former secretary of state, always seemed a cautious, buttoned-up kind of public servant, but he turns out to be just as uninhibited as anyone else, calling Donald Trump a ‘national disgrace’, Hillary Clinton ‘greedy’, and Dick Cheney an ‘idiot’. These are not national secrets, nor even original opinions; but they are embarrassing judgments to have publicly attached to you if you are a leading member of the Washington establishment. If you were lower down the greasy pole, they could be still more damaging; they could even threaten your career prospects.
Here, though, is someone not in the least concerned. Amid all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, there is carefree Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a briefly would-be Republican candidate for the presidency, who said: ‘I haven’t worried about an email being hacked, since I’ve never sent one. I’m, like, ahead of my time.’ Fancy that! But if it now seems odd that Senator Graham got where he did without ever sending an email, it shouldn’t. For the world carried on just as efficiently before email was invented only a few decades ago, and in some ways even more so.
It is so easy to send and receive emails that they accumulate to an overwhelming extent. Dealing with email correspondence now takes so much time that people have little of it for anything else. Letters on paper weren’t spewed out like emails. They took much longer to write, to dispatch, and to receive. More effort also went into composing them. Emails, by contrast, are dashed off in seconds and answered with equal speed. They make it so easy to communicate that it’s tempting to do so without any reason. It’s communicating for communicating’s sake.
The internet is a wonderful device in many ways, especially for finding things out, but it fosters communication to an unhealthy degree. Apart from email, there is ‘social media’, which has made young entrepreneurs into billionaires by creating internet communities in which supposedly like-minded people endlessly babble away with each other. I expect that Senator Graham has also been spared Twitter, Facebook and the like, but I myself haven’t completely. I have never touched Twitter, not even to read the pronouncements placed there by the Pope and the Queen; and I have never used Facebook either, but I did once register on it for reasons that I forget.
As a result, I have received lots of messages from people wanting to be ‘friends’. I normally agree to this request, if only because it seems gratuitously offensive to refuse; but the consequence is that these new friends of mine send me alluring photographs of themselves (as well as of their children and animals, if they have any) and let me know when their birthdays are. The communication between them and me is deplorably one-sided.
So also is it on another social medium on which I misguidedly registered. This is called LinkedIn, and it hopes to promote people’s careers by linking them with useful contacts. Earlier this month I got an email that read: ‘I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn. Michael.’ Imagine my excitement when this ‘Michael’ was identified below as none other than ‘Michael Gove, Journalist at News UK, London, United Kingdom’ — the same Michael Gove who has returned to the Times as a columnist after his political career was abruptly stalled (at least partly as a result of the publication of an unfortunate private email written by his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine).
I accepted with alacrity. I don’t know what Mr Gove’s professional network is, or why he needs it; but I feel honoured that he should want me to join it, especially as it is unlikely to be of much practical benefit to someone of my age.
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