What the Enron E-mails Say About Us | The New Yorker
Given that e-mail leaks can imperil governments, it seems odd that correspondents spend so little time reviewing basic work before they press send. Writing, along with fire-making and the invention of the wheel, is widely held to be a milestone of human progress. This view will seem naïve to anybody who has read much human writing. In its feral form, prose is unhinged, mystifying, and repetitive. Writers feel moved to “get things down on paper,” usually incoherently, and even in guarded moods say alarming stuff because they don’t know where to put their commas. (“Time to eat children!”) The true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing. E-mail, produced in haste, rarely receives the requisite attention. That is bad for us but good for posterity—and for students of the literary gestures we imprudently put in pixels. When inboxes are gathered, cracked open, and studied, they become a searchable, sortable atlas for the contours of our social minds.
the archive has been pulled apart and pecked up; it has been digested by computers and referred to by more than three thousand academic papers. This makes it, in the annals of scholarship, something strange: a canonic research text that no one has actually read. Mostly, that’s because it is too long, and too boring, for complete human consumption. When the e-mails were released, in 2003, the dump was more jumbled than even computers could handle
Computers can do little with a text that humans could not, but they make some laborious work go faster. In 1949, an Italian Jesuit priest named Roberto Busa presented a pitch to Thomas J. Watson, of I.B.M. Busa was trained in philosophy, and had just published his thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian with a famously unmanageable œuvre. (Work on a multivolume critical edition of Aquinas’s philosophy, commissioned by the Vatican, began in 1879 and is nowhere near done.) Busa had begun to wonder whether Watson’s computing machines could aid his work. Watson backed him, and, for the next thirty years, Busa encoded sixty-five thousand pages of Thomist text so that it could be word-searched, cross-referenced, and what we now call hyperlinked. The Index Thomisticus was the first corpus to be primed for digital scholarship, no less impressive because it started on punch cards and ended up online. “Digitus Dei est hic!” Busa punned in 2004. The finger of God is here.
Most results were unsurprising: people e-mailed more formally when dealing with business, across a gap in rank, with people they scarcely knew, and to a bigger audience. Oddly, though, e-mails grew more informal as the list of addressees expanded beyond ten. The researchers hypothesized that people like to strike a slouchy pose before big workplace audiences, the better to seem the cool kid in a class of dweebs.
In 2014, an enterprising business-English teacher named Evan Frendo had the idea of using the corpus to locate phrases helpful to the foreign businessperson working with Americans. After what must have been punishing study, he discovered a fixation on “ball” metaphors. “I thought I’d get the ball rolling,” one Enroner wrote. “Sounds like you guys had a ball at dinner,” another said. “I played hard ball and told them that I had to have more time,” a correspondent reported. “Someone REALLY dropped the ball here!” an employee chides. “From June 1, we will be totally on the ball,” reads an e-mail that you don’t believe. “I will pretty much leave it in your ball park about Friday night,” somebody writes (a message that Frendo correctly annotates “???”). All told, the corpus contained six hundred and two instances of ball speech, apparently covering every scenario in modern American business. It is not clear that this compendium eases the task of the Danish banker on a morning flight to Dallas. But perhaps it tells him where to focus his study.
In the iconoclastic 1980 book “Is There a Text in This Class?” Stanley Fish attacked the field of stylistics, and the tendency to equate the work of the humanities researcher with the work of the scientist. The equivalence was false, Fish thought, because the inquiries had different goals. Scientists were trying to zero in on something fixed and unknown: the laws of nature and their potential applications. Humanists were working with something variable and contingent: the way a text produced meaning for a given group of readers. You could turn up patterns in any long piece of writing without showing that such patterns were germane to how the work communicated. The most revealing question about a piece of text was the obvious one: How does it mean?
When the Enron scandal broke, last decade, e-mail was the most wanton kind of media. It is no longer so—people now have indecent texts at home, manic Slack threads in the workplace, and, for just about every venue, crankish, boastful Facebook, filled with babies and bad news. As the scandals of the past few years show, however, indecorum hasn’t left our inboxes, and the lives behind the @ symbol may still have something to hide.