The Magazine

Apres Spam

The next email crisis.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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EMAIL is a slippery medium. For example: Is it good or bad for the art of writing? Both. It devalues the written word; email is so fast and easy to send, correspondents exchange semi-articulate gibberings without a second thought. There used to be good letter writers, but there don't seem to be any good email writers (or barely any). You can see the extent to which email encourages junk prose in those ridiculous smile symbols with which some emailers cuten up their messages. "Email, unlike face-to-face conversation, doesn't allow you to 'send' facial expressions," the beginners' guides explain, in that oppressive "Listen up, kiddies!" tone that afflicts technical-minded people who try to explain software to laymen. "But you can use special symbols to let your correspondent know, 'I'm only kidding!'" Yet writers of ordinary letters have always (somehow or other) let their readers know they were only kidding without including miniature self-portraits as hints. They do this by means of words--the right ones in the right sequence. It's a neat trick.

Yet in some ways, email has been a godsend for writing. In the '70s and early '80s, the personal letter was on the verge of death. As phone service got cheaper, the letters got worse and informality blossomed like ragweed. The personal letter slipped away, until email revived it in a new form. We are still learning how to make the new form work. In some ways it's better than the old one, in many ways worse. In any case, for those of us who would sooner leap off a tall building than pick up the phone (perhaps 85 percent of the pre-cell phone male population), email was a lucky development. Alas, it is already endangered.

Today's big email problem is spam. But the spam problem will be largely solved (or at least brought under control) in the near future, and another huge problem will remain and get worse. Email is important enough to warrant our thinking about the next major problem now.

Spam is a big ugly mess--though hardly unexpected. I watch TV, but nearly all cable channels are junk from my standpoint, from the Fluffy Dogs Channel to Hot-Girls TV. (Those are two separate examples.) And even the ones I like are (mostly) rich in advertisement-junk--some of it merely annoying, some offensive. (Spam can be unspeakable, but TV commercials in which a formerly sick child pitches medicine are lower than anything I have ever seen in email.) I take it for granted that I will have to edit TV junk out, somehow or other. I do not solicit congressional action to clear up the problem. We might end up with the BBC.

Still, spam is bad--and the industry makes it worse by its characteristic klutziness. For example: A main complaint of email users is that they have to waste time every day deleting spam messages from the servers on which they lease their little online garden plots--but such deleting is only necessary because the industry has its head screwed on backwards. In our universe (right here, right now), data storage is dirt cheap and getting cheaper. Disk storage per bit is in effect too cheap to meter, so no one should have to waste time deleting anything, unless he feels like it.

No one should ever have to do anything with a mail message except ignore it, read it, or read and respond. When I see people "cleaning up" their mail files, faithfully stuffing each message into a folder or otherwise file-clerking for a machine, acting as their computer's loyal (albeit menial) employee, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. (Laugh is usually the right answer.) Software should be doing this for you. That's why software exists. And of course nothing should ever be put in a folder; what if it's the wrong folder? Since when have you been so crazy about filing things, anyway? Such tendencies are treatable if they are diagnosed early. Otherwise you will grow up to be a bureaucrat, or already have. Folders and folder hierarchies have been obsolete for 15 years.

But I assume that do-not-spam lists or some kind of pay-per-mail system or both will arrive within a year. Welcome developments, which leave the number one email problem untouched.

Sheer volume has turned email into an unreliable medium. Spam to the side, there is already too much (honest, legitimate) email for people to manage, and so they overlook messages or forget to answer them, in consequence of which conversations peter out into nothing--and no one is quite sure why, or what to do next. Excessive email volume is a fact of life and is never going away. The threat--which is guaranteed to force a massive retreat from this spiffy new medium within a few years unless we solve it--is the growing opacity of email, the Black Hole problem. If you haven't encountered it yet . . . just wait. Spam makes it worse, but it was a problem before spam and will remain long after spam is cured.