I first noticed it when Porter was working with coworkers from India, part of the great outsourcing/offshoring boom in the early part of this century. He had discovered that he could never make more than one point in an e-mail. If he asked two questions or brought up two subjects—let alone a list of several—his correspondent would respond to one of them, usually either the first or the last, and completely ignore the rest. At the time, I blamed it on the language barrier.
Now I don't know what say, because it happens all the time, with people for whom English is as native as language can get. Over and over again people seem to be missing everything after the first paragraph of an e-mail.
Could it be a Twitter Effect, and people just can't take in more than 140 characters at a time? Have our attention spans degenerated so drastically? Are we perhaps just so busy, hurried, and harried, trying to accomplish too much in too little time, that we can't take time to read carefully? I think of doctors, nurses, teachers, and others who complain that they are so rushed they can no longer do their jobs properly. It may be those in the helping professions who feel it first and foremost, but it's no doubt true of us all.
Should we, perhaps, call ourselves a post-literate society? Once upon a time, not that long ago, literacy was not taken for granted. It wasn't until 1940 that the U.S. Federal Census stopped asking people if they could read and write. But thereafter, every schoolchild was expected to learn to read and to write, and libraries flourished.
Now, I'm not so sure. Schools still teach reading and writing, but are we now creating graduates who can read, but don't? So many people never touch a book after leaving school! We've gone from reading solid, well-written, even scholarly books, to "beach reads," to newspapers and magazines, to USA Today, to blogs, to Facebook and Twitter, click-click-click. From long, newsy letters to e-mails to Instagram and Snapchat.
Certainly, there have been gains with each step. But we've also lost something important. I know people who can read very well, but have no patience with an e-mail that is longer than a few sentences. At least I don't need to worry about offending anyone with this blog post—the guilty won't get this far. :)
Ah well, one must move with the times. Pardon me while I go snip an e-mail into bite-sized fragments.