Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Email: Boon or Bane?

If you are reading this blog, you must be on the Internet, unless you are standing outside my office door where I post a hard copy of the first page every week. Either way, you very likely have one or more email accounts. If you're like me, your feelings about email are not uniformly positive. Sure, it's convenient, cheap, and a great way to stay in touch with people on the other side of the world, if you happen to know anybody over there. But email's downsides are well known too, from the time it takes you to wade through spam up to career-destroying incidents that could have been prevented by thinking just a little longer before clicking the "send" button.

Like most other communications media, at first glance email doesn't seem to have much to do with engineering ethics. A saying around my house is, "More communication is better than less communication," and why wouldn't that apply to email? The first large-scale users of email were physicists who found it a convenient way to keep in touch via their advanced networked computers. Many of the standard features of email were developed in an environment where the users were intelligent, well-behaved, technically adept, and often had a libertarian streak that opposed excessive government regulation. The protocols and systemic features that email uses were developed in this environment. Consequently, email's marginal cost is basically zero, anyone with an email account can send mail to anyone else, and it is almost impossible to regulate without extensive government-funded intervention, as in China.

These features stayed in place as the volume of email grew far beyond what most of its early developers anticipated. Now it is a part of modern culture, as much as the telephone was half a century ago. The near-zero marginal cost of email has allowed spammers of all kinds to spring up, and a kind of electronic warfare now exists between spammers who spray the Internet with billions of bits of advertising in the hopes that a few people respond, and the system operators who keep improving spam filters in a constant battle to limit the junk percentage in the average user's in-box. One wonders how much resources are being wasted on both sides. If there was a tiny fixed cost to sending an email message built into the system, even a Federal tax, and that cost was impossible to avoid, most spammers would go out of business. The rest would have to behave more like direct-mail companies, carefully targeting their messages to only those persons who are more likely to respond, given the limited financial resources of the spammer. The horse has been out of the barn much too long to consider implementing something like that now, unless in a few years it becomes necessary to do a worldwide system upgrade reaching down to the very basics of the email protocols. And that is not likely for the foreseeable future.

Spam aside, even the volume of email from people and organizations I recognize is often overwhelming. I find that the two largest generators of emails I realize are legitimate, but which I'd rather not receive, come from the two universities I am associated with, one as an employee and one as an adjunct professor. To control this problem, there would have to be some kind of financial or other penalty associated with excessive use of the all-employee email list. Most organizations have some sort of policy along those lines, but its enforcement is sporadic and sometimes you wonder if anyone cares at all how many emails are sent out to everyone.

Finally, there is the time each individual spends dealing with email. I must personally spend an hour or more each day dealing with it: reading it, sorting it, purging it, filing it, writing responses, and so on. In the years before email, what did I do with that hour or so a day? I don't remember reading postal mail for that length of time daily. And I wasn't on the phone. I must have been able to do other useful things, such as work, reading important books, or talking with friends and relatives. Whatever it was, it doesn't happen now, or if it does, it's in the rest of the day that has been squeezed by email.

Email isn't the first communications medium that has been viewed with ambivalence. Plato, writing around 380 B. C., called into question the wisdom of the invention of writing itself. In a story he attributed to a legendary king, he noted that before the invention of writing, people had to commit important things to memory: songs, poems, even legal agreements. But now that the technology of writing was available, the skills of remembering would atrophy. He was not at all sure that writing was an unmixed blessing.

Neither am I sure that email is an unmixed blessing. But I hope that in the future, its rough edges get smoothed out and it approaches the ideal of a seamless meeting of minds that all communication should strive for. It hasn't happened yet.

Sources: The Socratic dialogue in which Plato recounts the encounter between the Egyptian divinity and inventor of writing Theuth and King Thamos is available at http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/2.1/features/brent/platowri.htm (Phaedrus 67-71).

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