Sun, 22 Oct 2000

E-mail still to become part of everyday Indonesian life

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): "What is your e-mail address?" is a question more frequently heard nowadays than enquiries about your telephone or fax numbers. As for your street address, does anyone ever ask?

The advantages of e-mail communication abound, we are told. It provides more privacy than fax ever does, where the message coming in is potentially there for everyone to see and read, and human nature being the way it is, may even spread and reach every corner of the office before it even reaches you. And, it is arguably cheaper and definitely faster than the old fashion postal telecommunication. And it is potentially paperless, which no doubt appeals to those who are keen to protect the forests from being reduced into warehouses of paper.

All the theories and rhetoric sound wonderful, and we should therefore switch to our electronic mode of communication with enthusiasm and righteousness.

Should we? Then why are fax machines still coughing up dozens of messages a day, our trusty postmen still delivering stacks of mail each day, and our telephones are still ringing at odd hours?

Chances are, many people do not trust newfangled gadgets. In this case, electronic mail is not only too intangible to feel secure about, it is also hard to assess if it always delivers its promise.

How many times do you wonder if your email reaches its destination safely? You cannot even imagine what could go wrong with it; could it stray to another address? You have been told to punch in the address accurately, because anything to do with computers is very "sensitive".

What does that mean, exactly? Do computers sulk?

Luckily electronic mail has its good side too. When you receive the 50 page document you requested just by clicking your mouse, and when your e-mail is answered the following day, or even the same day, you know that it deserves your faith.

In our excitement about what e-mail can do, we forget that it can only do the things it is programmed to do, if the people involved in the communication comply with it.

Here we come face-to-face with a number of problems; those of the cultural kind, of the individual kind, and of the logistical kind.

A common question asked of an Indonesian friend is, "Is X's e- mail out of order, I wonder? I e-mailed X several times last week but there's still no reply."

Curiously, this is too reminiscent of another question usually asked during the pre-e-mail era, also of Indonesian friends, "Did you give me the correct fax number for Y? I've been sending Y faxed messages since last month! It's so frustrating. He agreed to be on our panel when I spoke to him in Jakarta, yet I can't get any confirmation. I need to know tomorrow or I'll have to find someone else!"

More worrying was the next question, "What do you think?"

Not being a mind reader, it was very difficult to define, whether Y, having given his agreement orally, did not see the need to confirm, unaware that in other countries, this kind of formality was required, or Y had only said yes because he did not know that the request was serious. Now he was being chased, he did not know how to say no, so he went into hiding. It would have been a cowardly thing to do, but these things happen. People make mistakes.

The complaints about instances of one-way communication to Indonesia are however not restricted to individuals in curly situations like the example of Y, they are frighteningly widespread. People sending electronic greeting cards without hearing any more about them.

Colleagues sending requested information or documents not knowing if they have been received. Foreign correspondents and contributors sending requested articles not hearing about them again until they appear in the publications.

While those who are used to this behavior finally accept the situation, many recalcitrants who still cannot adjust their expectations see this social phenomenon as a lack of courtesy. Amusingly, these people are surprised when they go to Indonesia and see how courteous and attentive the people they have mentally labeled as discourteous, are.

"Indonesians are very much a face-to-face people," they often theorize afterwards, "they are not much into distant communication."

Some also discover a logistical problem. Many of the people with whom they try to communicate, are in offices where there is only one computer for every 20 people. And those who have personal computers do not always have access to a server. And another section of the e-mailing population, the majority, it seems, do not have access to personal computers at all. They have to go to their local Internet centers, which can be impractical in certain climates.

And chief editors in Indonesia, it transpires, have personal assistants to receive and send their messages. As we all know, when something goes from desk to desk, it can mysteriously or conveniently, or even inadvertently, go astray.

However, all that still does not explain why certain people, who have personal computers and access to a server, do not reply to e-mail messages they receive for weeks? Is there some truth in the theory that Indonesians are a face-to-face type? Then why have e-mail addresses at all?