Sweet Erosions of E-mail

Ups and Downs on the Communication Front

By Geert Lovink

Dedicated to www.idea.org.uk/cfront

"NORTH FALMOUTH, Mass.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--June 8, 2000-- (NASDAQ:BTHS) Benthos, Inc. In an historic breakthrough in underwater communications made possible by the use of a Benthos ATM 885 Telesonar Acoustic Modem, the US Navy has completed its latest series of tests in which the submarine USS Dolphin, while cruising at a depth of 400 feet, was able to successfully send several e-mail messages via the internet to facilities located ashore."

It is a popular saying that e-mail is the ultimate killer application of the Internet. No matter how opinions may divide over the possible economic, social or cultural impacts of new technologies, there seems to be a next to global consensus about the blessings of electronic mail. Unlike the bandwidth consuming multi-media content on the Web, e-mail as a medium has well positioned itself beyond any criticism. It is being said that streaming media are for the happy few, with their T1, DSL or cable access, whereas e-mail is regarded as the big equalizer. Whereas broadband is widening the "digital divide", e-mail has the historical task to empower those with less access to technology. Lately I started feeling increasing uncomfortable about this almighty, unquestioned assumption which is not addressing what is actually happening.

"In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, an evil king, was condemned to Hades to forever roll a big rock to the top of a mountain, and then the rock always rolled back down again. Similar version of Hell is suffered every day by people with forever full e-email boxes." Nikolai Bezroukov

Ever since its inventions there has been a well known list of complaints about e-mail. Spam is certainly one of them. The use of e-mail by tele-marketers is still on the increase, despite the filter software which is constantly being upgraded and further developed. Like other biological and electronic viruses, spam is gaining intelligence and proves to break through the immune systems. Porn and ads for financial services are well known genres. But thatís still old school. What is new are good willing individuals and organizations, who, without any sense of right or wrong subscribe thousands of e-mail addresses out of some database, without having consulted their niche market at forehand. These are the merits of direct marketing. In most cases it is not even possible to unsubscribe, and if one starts complaining, the conversation easily turns into a flame war. You are supposed to be happy to get informed. Friends and colleagues are not sending anonymous spam, they are actually doing a great service to you! So why bother and make trouble? You have been chosen as an ideal target audience for this or that service or opinion. There is little to do against the growing tide of electronic goodwill. The right not to be informed is a yet unknown phenomenon, one with a strong growth potential.

"NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--June 8, 2000--Despite nationwide firings that resulted from improper e-mail use at the workplace, fifty eight percent of the 1,004 employees recently surveyed by Vault.com are "not worried" about their employers monitoring their e-mail accounts."

Unwanted mail is part of the growing anxiety over information overload, an ancient disease associated to e-mail ever since its introduction in the 1970s. The amount of e-mail per day, in some circles still proudly mentioned as a status symbol, associated with the ability to master the new medium, has turned into a nuisance for most IT workers. Folders are being created in order not be confronted with the bulk of e-mail. Online web archives are on the increase, used by those with enough connectivity. We can expect a growth in the use of customized personal filters.

With the democratization of the Internet, its default dissemination into all social spheres, the diversity of usage of e-mail is growing at a same pace. It is tempting at this point to start complaining about a loss of values. The invasion of the common folks is lowering the quality of the conversations, so they say. I wonít do that. What is interesting to observe is how new users are responding to e-mail communication in a diverse way.

All I can do here is present some of my subjective observations:

With the next hundred million e-mail users entering the Internet over the next year, one should not get angry or disappointed about the expected disfunctionalities. The Net is as good as its users which, in many places, in demographic terms are getting nearer to the average citizen. The rapid spreading of the technology is something people have dreamed of, and anticipated throughout the last decades. In no way will the Internet alter, lift or cool down human nature, so there is a lot we can expect to happen, beyond good or evil, from jubilees, charities, parties and other types of celebrations to rape, murders, genocide and other known or as yet unknown crimes.

The quality of the e-mail communication is ranging from deep friendships, fierce debates, significant periods of silence, sudden flame wars, touching miscommunications, resulting into all too human activities such as love affairs, marriage, e-business and everything between rumors, gossip, casual talk, propaganda, discourse and noise. At best, the Net will be a mirror of the societies, countries and cultures which use it. Not a sweet and innocent, sleepy global village but a vibrant crawling and crashing bunch of complexities, as chaotic and unfinished as the world we live in.

Related URLs:

* Junk e-mail and spam http://www.ecofuture.org/jmemail.html

* E-mail in organizations http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_9/williams/index.html

* On the problem of archiving http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue4_9/lukesh/

* Desktop Critic: Attack of the Living E-Mail http://macworld.zdnet.com/1999/05/opinion/desktopcritic.html

* Old e-mail never dies http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.05/email_pr.html

* US-Army advises on how to avoid information overload


* Information/Work Overload Annotated Webliography