The time and labor saved by technology may not always be where we think it is. Just ask Verdi

Last summer a friend who lives on the West Coast asked me to work with him on a script for his television cops-and-lawyers show, an offer I happily accepted. There was only one drawback: because of our complicated schedules, we would never be less than a couple thousand miles apart. I was racing from one small town to another in pursuit of a magazine story; he was hopping between coasts, supervising episodes of his TV show. Worse, my friend's two-month-old baby had yet to sleep through the night, meaning that even when he was home, his schedule was erratic. He spent a fair amount of time with his phone ringer turned off. The upshot was that two people had to invent a story together without being able to count on face-to-face or even voice-to-voice contact.

We were undaunted, because as two mod a-go-go folks we had been E-mailing each other for years. Sitting in my dim small-town motel room early one morning, I tapped out on the laptop the first suggested story elements -- "What if the murder took place on an elevator? Can you imagine if the story somehow revolved around intellectual property?" -- and zapped them to my friend. I had no idea which coast he was on, but it didn't matter; he would consult his electronic mailbox wherever he was. Then I ate breakfast, drove around interviewing people, took a source to dinner, checked into an-other motel, pulled out the laptop, and opened my own mailbox. My friend had responded: "We already did an intellectual-property show, but what if a jailed savings-and-loan figure were involved? What if the case also involved a struggling gift company that sold Killer Bee honey?"

Hmm, I thought. Not bad. What if . . . My fingers flew over the keyboard.

As a story emerged from the electronic back-and-forth, I developed a pleasing sense of myself as playing a role, however small, in the current revolution in communications. Leaning back with my laptop on the identical chenille spreads used in every small motel room I stayed in, I imagined a new identity as the sort of fellow who has utterly cast aside the computer-printout-Federal Express ways of yesteryear. Boldly E-mailing where no one has E-mailed before -- you get the idea. How much speed and convenience I was gaining! Unfortunately, this image of myself had a distinct drawback: it was almost completely delusional.

Not long after the script was finished, I flew to northern Italy. The area has much to recommend it, but among its most glittering appeals to me is its long operatic tradition -- I am one of those otherwise normal people who listen to opera. In Parma is the Istituto di Studi Verdiani, an archive devoted to Giuseppe Verdi, composer of such great operatic fare as Rigoletto and La Traviata. In a high-ceilinged room with mullioned windows overlooking a courtyard were tall glass-fronted cases containing thousands upon thousands of letters written by the maestro, a correspondent in the prolific nineteenth-century manner. On a table was a display about Falstaff, Verdi's stitched-together tale of the paunchy comic antihero from the Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts I and II. I examined the display -- and began to reconsider my thoughts about today's communications revolution.

The exhibit consisted of letters, each sealed in a plastic folder, that had passed between Verdi and his librettist, the poet Arrigo Boito. Composer and writer were fencing over the third act: What if Falstaff were sent to wander in the woods? Couldn't he pause a bit here, which would allow time for another eight bars of this melody? And so on. Verdi, who was almost 80, was being a bit grumpy; Boito, much younger, was soothing and conciliatory.

Nothing that transpired was unusual; indeed, the to-and-fro resembled the notes my friend and I had sent each other, though it was on a considerably more elevated level. What surprised me were the dates on the letters. Inspecting their upper-right-hand corners, I saw that many of the letters were written, delivered, and responded to on the same day, even though Boito spent most of his time gallivanting around Milan and Verdi was usually holed up in his country house, near Busseto, 50 miles away. Indeed, when both Boito and Verdi were in Milan, they sometimes exchanged as many as three letters a day.

"How was that possible?" I asked the nearest archivist. "It was 1890!"

The archivist rolled his eyes. Then he emitted a brief lecture about postal history. In nineteenth-century novels, he pointed out, characters are always penning notes in the morning to ask if they can pay a visit that afternoon. This was possible because places like Milan had no less than five mail deliveries every day. You could drop a line to friends in the city and be fairly confident that they would receive it in, say, three hours; if you sent the note in the morning to friends in the suburbs, it would arrive by nightfall. All of which means that Verdi and Boito would probably have derived little benefit from E-mail -- they had a good post office.

Then the archivist showed me some of Verdi's correspondence during a production of, I believe, Ada at the Paris Opera. Evidently the show was not going well. After sitting through each morning's rehearsals, the composer retired to his hotel room at lunchtime to flame everyone in sight. Quill pen scratching, he shot off blistering memos about the staging, the direction, the contracts, the ticket prices, and the advertisements. "Male! Male! Male!" went one note that I remember. There were plenty more like it.

Desk clerks picked up these vitriolic missives and dropped them into the network of special pneumatic tubes threading through the city. The letters went to a central clearinghouse, where they were quickly routed to another set of tubes that would suck them to their destination. Sometimes the journey took less than half an hour, a period short enough to allow Verdi and the unfortunate objects of his scorn to exchange three or four notes in an afternoon -- a working definition of hell for some of those people, I suspect.

Soon after my trip to Italy, something happened that brought Verdi's E-mail to mind. I was in one part of Manhattan and had to send a short text to an editor in another part of Manhattan. I plugged my laptop into the Internet and prepared to transmit. The file vanished into cyberspace -- twice. I offered to modem it directly to my editor's office. Nobody on staff knew how to operate the software on the receiving end.

After 15 minutes of fruitless technobabble ("Mr. Mann, what does it mean when it asks you to set parameters?"), I tried to send the file from my computer via WinFax, the ubiquitous program that allows computer users to fax word-processed documents. As all users of the program know, it will not communicate with certain fax machines; my editor's proved to be one of them. I finally printed the text on a dot-matrix printer and zapped it to my editor on a regular fax machine; he scanned it into his desktop computer. Afterward, we spent half an hour going through the text word by word to correct the errors in the scanned copy.

The lesson here is not that Verdi had an easier time of it, though in some ways he did. Nor is it that for all our vaunted technology we have barely kept pace with our forebears, though that is not entirely wrong. It's that the speed gained and labor saved by technology may not always be where we think they are.

Verdi and his confreres could generate correspondence so prolific that we in our electronic era can only marvel because well-to-do Europeans of the day depended on an invisible army of servants and clerks. Servants to run the notes to and from the pneumatic tubes. Clerks to run about the streets of Milan. These jobs have almost disappeared, most likely freeing up their occupants for more interesting work.

Yes, when I send E-mail to my co-writer friend, real time is being saved and real convenience is being gained. It's just that the greatest benefits may accrue not to me or him but to someone else.

Charles C. Mann is a contributing editor in science at the Atlantic Monthly . His most recent book, Noah's Choice (written with Mark Plummer), appeared in February.