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Bioterror scare may spur reluctant switch to e-mail

November 4, 2001 

E-mail advocates always try to convert the great unwashed public over to our way of communicating. Now, along with convenience and speed, we can say that e-mail is a safer way to go. That argument, however, is absent of the zeal and glee with which we previously promoted the new technology.

With the prevailing fear and paranoia, some people will approach the morning mail with rubber gloves. The one advantage of regular mail over e-mail — personality and closeness — slips away as soon as you don the requisite protective clothing. So those people who have resisted getting into an e-mailbox because it felt too cold may now be forced online for safety reasons.

When you use a computer to talk to your friends and relatives, the worst thing that can happen is you get a computer virus that can destroy your data.

This paranoia over anthrax by mail doesn't make a lot of sense. The probability of anthrax arriving along with the relatively nontoxic junk mail is less than slim. Statistically, the average person faces more danger from the flu. And it is still safer to fly than to drive.

But Americans tend to take these attacks personally. As diverse as we are, when someone in Florida suffers an unnatural fate, people in the other corners of the country start taking precautions. And even if the actual danger is negligible, each assault changes life in a small way. In this case, mail handlers will start wearing surgical gloves. And more people will switch over to e-mail.

This won't be a happy transition. Most people would rather adapt a new technology voluntarily than be forced to do so for safety's sake. For that reason, some will resist the idea of e-mail just on principle.

Average people can do nothing about anthrax threats or terrorist attacks, except to try to protect themselves. But the average e-mailer can strive to make the online world a little brighter and warmer. If someone has a new e-mail account, we can write him or her a friendly note, proving that emotions and electrons can coexist. We don't have to get all in a twist if the person uses caps for emphasis or sends along a huge attachment.

The Internet is about to get a lot more crowded and less pleasant. But we need to treat the newcomers with some patience. And if any more Californians move up here, it won't hurt to be nice to them as well.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@ Type "Inbox" in the subject field.

By Charles Bermant, Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company

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