World of letters


Last autumn my son Felix had one of the jobs that the Internet is making common: he was a loader in Hamley's main warehouse. What "e-commerce" is really about is mail order but with the customers doing their own paperwork; so for every coffee-sipping geek employed to write the shopping basket software, ten tea-slurping oafs must be hired to stack the boxes in which it's all shipped. But there's a shortage of oafs in north Essex, even if this is indiscernible to the casual eye, so they had to be topped up with students. About half the staff at Hamley's warehouse were people who could get no other sort of work, but the others were students and, when they were not drinking together, they spent their time exchanging e-mail.

Even after the university term started, there were little rings of e-mail contact and jokes running round the country. It's not quite the same as letter-writing used to be, because letters were always addressed to one person, or at most one family. You cannot send simultaneous copies around a ring of ten friends as you can with e-mail. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of these messages, or their subject-lines, when the laptop I had lent Felix could not get through and he would borrow my machine; they were, I think, more interesting than life as a stacker in a warehouse.

Everyone in the group seemed to have a Hotmail account, and while Felix was here he arranged for at least three of his friends to acquire one. I loathe web-based e-mail services in general because they are so slow and Hotmail in particular because it transfers you automatically to another Microsoft page when you quit. But for the less curmudgeonly it is a brilliant interface. It makes e-mail as simple and unthreatening as a telephone. You don't have to know anything about your connection to use it; and because it is so slow, it has made cybercafes profitable all over the world.

When Felix set off for five months in Africa I didn't expect to hear much, and least of all did I expect e-mail. But apart from one spooky moment when he rang from a mobile in Kampala and the line was so clear that I assumed he was back in England unexpectedly, almost everything we heard was by e-mail. Phone calls are still expensive and usually unreliable. In fact, the lives of Felix and the friend he was travelling with would have been simpler without the telephone at all. The friend not only caught malaria, but was rung up specially from Sweden by his girlfriend to say that she'd dumped him. That never happened to David Livingstone.

But if the messages I've had from Felix over the past five months are anything to go by, it appears that the whole continent is wired now. There are e-mails from the farm they stayed at in rural Tanzania. There is one from a camp on an island in Lake Victoria, and several from a school for disabled children. Even Maputo has a cybercafe now. Most of these messages contain a complaint about how much it is costing to sit and type. But it's amazing how easy it has become to broadcast your adventures. One e-mail from Nairobi went to 37 people, among them an 82-year-old grandmother and 30 or so of his closest friends. It may not have told me much about Felix, but it was an astonishing insight into the way that e-mail has become the string that holds the world together.

By the time they reached Uganda, one disadvantage of Hotmail had become obvious. It is one of the most heavily spammed addresses in the universe. Felix would log on and find 100 messages waiting, of which 95 were invitations to pornographic websites or circular letters about life at Nottingham University. So he lent me his password, and I discovered that modern fatherhood involves logging on once a week to scrape the rubbish out of your son's e-mail account.

Anyway, last week he came back and I was able to tot up the score. Twenty letters over five months, which is about 20 times as many as I would normally expect from him. If e-mail can make young men write letters, it really will transform the world. Felix is going back to Sweden now for five months and I gave him my laptop when he left. I pretended it's because it will be useful when he goes to Belfast University, but really it's so he can keep in touch without Hotmail.

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