I do not lay claims to being an ascetic but so far, in my brief life, I haven’t inhaled marijuana or snorted cocaine. On sleepless nights, I’m not tempted to gawk nightlong at pornographic films in the cold, blue halo of an LCD screen. If I’ve smoked hashish, then it has been no more than half a dozen times, and that too, was consumed in the spirit of benign exploration.
I’ve not known myself to get hooked to any one thing, other than of course, my customary cups of coffee every morning. I’m not an easy prey to addictions.
Yet I exchanged a total of 904 e-mails in the course of a mere 12 days with one individual. The number isn’t alarming given today’s hit-and-click-style communication. It’s not in the least surprising to be inundated with e-mails from friends, family, co-workers and spammers. But what do you call 75 correspondences a day with a single source?
It began quite harmlessly, really, on April 6, on a social network site—without the remotest signs and snares of an addiction. By April 18, a few effortlessly-typed random thoughts had acquired a life of their own—having progressed from a trickle to a stream to a rivulet to a river until it burst its banks, spilled over into my life and disrupted it.
The outcome? Catastrophic, domestically speaking.
The laundry went unattended for well over two weeks. I hadn’t got as much writing done as I’d have liked to. I’d been neglecting important phone calls.
The initial “thread” of conversation, between April 6 and 8 contained 376 notes and the second, between April 8 and 9, 174. The pace at which we were communicating was maddening, despite the fact that my interlocutor was writing to me from her workplace. The e-mails were coming in fast and furious, so much so that I was finding it difficult to keep pace with their speed. Plus, it was becoming increasingly laborious for me to access my page every few minutes just to check for any signs of activity.
So I requested my correspondent to write to me at Yahoo! Mail—an account I checked maybe 50 times from the time I woke up to the time I crashed and whose status I could monitor through the instant-messaging software set up on my desktop. From my new post, I traded an additional 354 mails with her.
What I write aren’t missives. They are not billet-doux. They are scraps of impulsive, fragmented communication that I’m inexorably drawn to craft and respond to. I unleash my thoughts on the screen at 60 words-per-minute, bid them adieu and sit expectantly for the arrival of a reply, like a lover of yesteryear waiting for the black telephone to ring.
I know I wouldn’t do this if I were dealing with handwritten letters. The sheer thought of assembling a letter pad, a pen, an envelope, and a stamp makes my eyelids feel heavy. But the ease of communicating via computer feeds my compulsion.
I am roused not by the sound of the first stirrings of traffic, of engines idling by the sidewalk, of sanitation trucks grunting their way down remote streets, but by the anticipation of what I shall find in my mailbox. Still groggy, I flip open my laptop and let it boot up while I head to the bathroom, for once out, I wouldn’t want to waste a moment in starting it up. When my computer is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I rush to Yahoo! Mail to see its nocturnal catch of e-mails.
Depending on who the sender is: (1) my lips will break into a coquettish smile (2) my visage will assume the form of a comma (3) my heart will do a somersault (4) my eyebrows will be knitted (5) my head will start aching (6) my temples will start throbbing (7) my palms will get clammy (9) my eyes will get limpid (10) my face will get flushed. Evidently, I am capable of experiencing the entire gamut of human emotions, just by sitting in front of a seemingly inanimate monitor.
Throughout the course of the roughly 15 hours that I keep awake, I have the messenger program running. I can bear to turn the sound alert off when I am at my workstation, but should a pressing matter require me to tear myself away from my desk, I don’t leave without enabling it. I don’t want miss out on the action while I am away.
I want to hear precisely when an e-mail entered my personal virtual space. At the Pavlovian sound of the bell, I drop my chores, shirk my duties, and rush back to my seat, for to me, it is the very sound of music. A miniature pixilated-envelope begs me to open it. I proceed without delay to my inbox. “You have one unread message,” it announces, to my delight and relief.
Recently, a team of researchers at Yahoo!, who’ve been studying the e-mail patterns of people, has identified two types of e-mailers: the “day laborers” who send e-mails throughout the regular working hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and the “e-mailaholics” who send e-mails throughout the waking hours 9 a.m. and 1 a.m.
Guess which one I am.
Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York City-based journalist.