Goodbye to Email

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2004

I read a news item recently about a CEO of a communications company who had banned email for his employees. I was interested, amused, alarmed, and appalled -- maybe in that order.

I tried to remember my first email message. Sadly, I can’t. It seems as if it has always been a part of my environment. It’s hard to recall the times when all electronic communication went through the telephone as voice. No one was ever there when I called, and there was even a day when answering machines weren’t ubiquitous. How did we exist? Yet, amazingly, we did.

In the early days of email, before the Internet became widespread, there was a small fraternity of people who were “on email.” It was a badge of distinction. I got few messages, but they were all from engineers and computer scientists whom I knew. I rather liked it that way. It was a secret form of communications among us nerds.

That community of users steadily grew. However, as late as 1992 I recall knowing researchers who still didn’t have email addresses. There was even for a while an inverse pride in not being electronically accessible. But none of this abstinence lasted long after that. Soon, heaven forbid, the public got wind of email.

At first I was a little reluctant to share this great secret with people outside the technical community. After all, it was our thing. But soon I began to appreciate the great benefits of Metcalfe’s Law – the value of a network grows with the square of the number of users. My own value was proportional to the number of people I could potentially reach, and that quickly became an enormous number.

Then came a period of wonder. I received emails out of the blue from long lost friends – classmates from grade school whom I had long ago forgotten, former employees that wanted to let me know what they were now doing, and neighbors who had moved to other cities. I heard from strangers who had comments on things I had written and from engineers in far away countries with questions. Every day it was an adventure to open my email client. What surprises would await me, I wondered?

Alas. The first dark clouds came with mailing lists and attachments. The number of messages began to grow, and a lot of it didn’t seem really seem to be for me. I started to get large files that I never had the occasion to open. I began to get a lot of broadcast messages like “someone has left his lights on in the parking lot.” I started to think that maybe that person’s battery should be allowed to run down instead of taking the time of thousands of email recipients.

Still, it was ok. I didn’t even have any premonition of disaster when I got my first Nigerian scam message. I confess that I read the plea about impounded money with a certain sympathy, even though I had no intention of getting involved. I didn’t recognize this first harbinger of the dark ages to come.

It happened so quickly. It’s probably only in the last two or three years that spam and viruses have consumed our beautiful email system. I lament the lost, irretrievable innocence of those early days. What we have now is an inverse application of Metcalfe’s Law. The more people that you can access, the more people that can access you, and because there will be some percentage of bad behavior in that group, the less value that the network has. I think now that Metcalfe’s Law of network value versus number of users is a bell-shaped curve. Beyond some threshold number of users, value begins to decrease.

My sense of wonder is long gone. I’m reluctant to open my email. Almost none of it is for me anymore. I’m afraid that I will miss the few important messages in the blizzard of offensive commercial entreaties.

Now I’m mad. I want to open the window and shout out to the world that I’m not taking it any more. I’m mad at the spammers, and maybe even madder at the people who succumb to the spam and make it worthwhile for the spammers. I’m mad at the impotence of the government in stopping it. I’m mad at us technologists for the lack of a solution. I’m even mad at myself, though I’m not sure why.

So back to the CEO who banned email. I understand where he’s coming from, but he has a bad idea, and I wouldn’t want to work in his company. I myself have a better idea. We start all over. We engineers create a new email system just for ourselves. Maybe it just runs on UNIX, and it has a very complicated, command-line interface. You have to know your stuff to use it. Sound familiar?

Robert Lucky