How much longer will it be possible to send email?

by Guy Kewney | posted on 25 June 2002

We're becoming hypersensitive to technology. People are buying cellphone jammers; they are suffering Walkman Rage; they are net-bombing people who send spam.

Guy Kewney

It's tempting for the industry to see technology as a way of solving the problems of technology. After all, if you have a problem caused by technology, it proves someone made some money selling the first technology. And now, you can make even more money selling a technology solution!

So: noise-cancelling headphones are selling; not just because people want to listen to music over the background of noisy traffic, but because they can't abide the "tsh, tsh, tsh-t-tish" of someone else's headphones. We're buying spam-busters, because the incoming junk mail "uses up bandwidth." And we're even buying devices which interfere with cellphone transmissions, because (to quote one columnist) "there's nothing worse than people pulling their phones out on the train and ringing someone to say; 'I'm on the train' when they are on the train."

I'd like a sociologist to explain this, though. It seems to me that people are getting excited far beyond common sense. Is it really the case that people talking on a mobile phone are more irritating than two people chatting face to face? Can it really be true that the faint rattle of a Walkman's output is intrusively loud, even in a moving carriage with iron wheels on iron rails?

And is it really the case that it is harder to delete spam than to put junk mail in the bin? Or can it honestly be true that "Get a bigger penis/ cheaper mortgage/ secret spyware/ magic shareholdings!" takes a long time to download over a broadband internet feed?

The attraction of Microsoft's new Palladium proposals is: that it should make the world's computer systems less vulnerable to viruses and Internet worms. In fact, most people who have written to me about it have focused on the idea that it might make spam a thing of the past.

Now, tidying up the junk mail is a pain. So, for that matter, is tidying up any of the household mess that everyday life creates; cat fur, used tissues, packaging, packaging, packaging and food scraps. And similarly, any noise can be a distraction; but the noise of a train's wheels on the rails is infinitely louder and more intrusive than you could achieve with Walkman headphones. And half a conversation is more disconcerting than both voices would be ... except it's half as noisy, really. But it's all trivia!

What is really going on here?

No, I'm not saying that spam is not a problem, any more than cold-call phone sales are "not a problem." They are an issue. But are they really that much of an issue that people will threaten violence to the perpetrators? When I was a boy, the noise of a jet airliner over a city was a distraction; today, I barely notice it. The background hum of city traffic (or, these days, country traffic) is just background. Twenty years ago, if a neighbour had their telly too loud, it would stop me sleeping; today, it's got to be really very, very loud indeed before I'll notice it. And in the UK, where I live, tolerances are very low; in Spain, you're expected to sleep through firework displays. In France, if the sound of your neighbour's all-night party/argument doesn't disturb you, you'll certainly be kept awake by the sounds of other neighbours yelling at them to keep the noise down.

Microsoft's plan is (you could well argue) a ploy to take over the world with Windows. It could mean a standard for computer security which is Redmond-based, and there's no obvious reason to assume that it's going to work any better than solutions which exist already in the market, but which Microsoft chose to ignore when it designed the Windows infrastructure. In short, there are several good reasons to question the wisdom of allowing the Gates empire to rule even more territory.

But is unsolicited email really the most significant of them? Or are we just not accustomed to it yet?

I do think we ought to have some debate about this, before we all follow the Pied Piper into the river, waving banners saying "Down with Spam! and Death to Spammers!" and ask ourselves whether the benefits might not be weighed down by the drawbacks.

In particular, I suspect that actually getting in touch with people in ten years' time may be a question of needing an introduction first. Most people, today, don't have ex-directory phones, but the panic over cold-calling may make it more and more popular. Similarly, most people have not yet learned to hide their email addresses from prying eyes; but anti-spam software may make email useless.

Not very long ago, a colleague of mine interviewed a professor of computer science. Because he was anxious to forge a personal relationship with the professor, he took the somewhat unusual step of sending the draft article to the academic, for his comments. Naturally, he sent it via email.

The professor didn't read the email. It had come from an address he hadn't expected to see in his in-basket. He simply forwarded it to a spam trap agency, with an angry note to the effect that he hoped the perpetrator would be banned from the domain. And within hours, my friend had his email address put on hold.

There are, of course, ways of avoiding this sort of over-reaction; intelligent anti-spam can be more discriminating, and the fault lay more with the ISP involved (it was the appallingly-managed before its takeover) than with the hypersensitivity of the professor. But - well, really, is this the direction we want to go in?