Is e-mail a blessing or a curse? Last month, after a week's vacation, I discovered 1,218 unread e-mail messages waiting in my in box. I pretended to be dismayed, but secretly I was pleased. This is how we measure our wired worth in the late 1990s--if you aren't overwhelmed by e-mail, you must be doing something wrong.
Never mind that after subtracting the stale office chitchat, spam, flame wars, dumb jokes forwarded by friends who should have known better and other e-mail detritus, there were perhaps seven messages actually worth reading. I was doomed to spend half my workday just deleting junk. E-mail sucks.
But wait--what about those seven? A close friend in Taipei I haven't seen in five years tells me he's planning to start a family. A complete stranger in Belgium sends me a hot story tip. Another stranger offers me a job. I'd rather lose an eye than lose my e-mail account. E-mail rocks!
E-mail. Can't live with it, can't live without it. Con artists and real artists, advertisers and freedom fighters, lovers and sworn enemies--they've all flocked to e-mail as they would to any new medium of expression. E-mail is convenient, saves time, brings us closer to one another, helps us manage our ever-more-complex lives. Books are written, campaigns conducted, crimes committed--all via e-mail. But it is also inconvenient, wastes our time, isolates us in front of our computers and introduces more complexity into our already too-harried lives. To skeptics, e-mail is just the latest chapter in the evolving history of human communication. A snooping husband now discovers his wife's affair by reading her private e-mail--but he could have uncovered the same sin by finding letters a generation ago.
Yet e-mail--and all online communication--is in fact something truly different; it captures the essence of life at the close of the 20th century with an authority that few other products of digital technology can claim. Does the pace of life seem ever faster? E-mail simultaneously allows us to cope with that acceleration and contributes to it. Are our attention spans shriveling under barrages of new, improved forms of stimulation? The quick and dirty e-mail is made to order for those whose ability to concentrate is measured in nanoseconds. If we accept that the creation of the globe-spanning Internet is one of the most important technological innovations of the last half of this century, then we must give e-mail--the living embodiment of human connection across the Net--pride of place. The way we interact with each other is changing; e-mail is both the catalyst and the instrument of that change.
The scope of the phenomenon is mind-boggling. Worldwide, 225 million people can send and receive e-mail. Forget about the Web or e-commerce or even online pornography: e-mail is the Internet's true killer app--the software application that we simply must have, even if it means buying a $2,000 computer and plunking down $20 a month to America Online. According to Donna Hoffman, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, one survey after another finds that when online users are asked what they do on the Net, "e-mail is always No. 1."
Oddly enough, no one planned it, and no one predicted it. When research scientists first began cooking up the Internet's predecessor, the Arpanet, in 1968, their primary goal was to enable disparate computing centers to share resources. "But it didn't take very long before they discovered that the most important thing was the ability to send mail around, which they had not anticipated at all," says Eric Allman, chief technical officer of Sendmail, Inc., and the primary author of a 20-year-old program--Sendmail--that still transports the vast majority of the world's e-mail across the Internet. It seems that what all those top computer scientists really wanted to use the Internet for was as a place to debate, via e-mail, such crucially important topics as the best science-fiction novel of all time. Even though Allman is now quite proud that his software helps hundreds of millions of people communicate, he says he didn't set out originally to change the world. As a systems administrator at UC Berkeley in the late '70s, he was constantly hassled by computer-science researchers in one building who wanted to get their e-mail from machines in another location. "I just wanted to make my life easier," says Allman.
Don't we all? When my first child was born in 1994, e-mail seemed to me some kind of Promethean gift perfectly designed to help me cope with the irreconcilable pressures of new-fatherhood and full-time freelance writing. It saved me time and money without ever requiring me to leave the house; it salvaged my social life, allowed me to conduct interviews as a reporter and kept a lifeline open to my far-flung extended family. Indeed, I finally knew for sure that the digital world was viscerally potent when I found myself in the middle of a bitter fight with my mother--on e-mail. Again, new medium, old story.
My mother had given me an e-mail head start. In 1988, she bought me a modem so I could create a CompuServe account. The reason? Her younger brother had contracted a rapidly worsening case of Parkinson's disease. He wasn't able to talk clearly, and could hardly scrawl his name with a pen or pencil. But he had a computer, and could peck out words on a keyboard. My mom figured that if the family all had CompuServe accounts, we could send him e-mail. She grasped, long before the Internet became a household word, how online communication offered new possibilities for transcending physical limitations, how as simple a thing as e-mail could bring us closer to those whom we love.
It may even help us find those whom we want to love in the first place. Jenn Shreve is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who keeps a close eye on the emerging culture of the new online generation. For the last couple of years, she's seen what she considers to be a positive change in online dating habits. E-mail, she argues, encourages the shy. "It offers a semi-risk-free environment to initiate romance," says Shreve. "Because it lacks the immediate threat of physical rejection, people who are perhaps shy or had painful romantic failures in the past can use the Internet as a way to build a relationship in the early romantic stages."
But it's not just about lust. E-mail also flattens hierarchies within the bounds of an office. It is far easier, Shreve notes, to make a suggestion to your superiors and colleagues via e-mail than it is to do so in a pressure-filled meeting room. "Any time when you have something that is difficult to say, e-mail can make it easier," she says. "It serves as a buffer zone."
Of course, e-mail's uses as a social lubricant can be taken to extremes. There is little point in denying the obvious dark side to the lack of self-constraint encouraged by e-mail. Purveyors of pornography rarely call us on the phone and suggest out loud that we check out some "hot teen action." But they don't think twice about jamming our e-mail boxes full of outrageously prurient advertisements. People who would never insult us face to face will spew the vilest, most objectionable, most appalling rhetoric imaginable via e-mail or an instant message, or in the no-holds-barred confines of a chat room.
Cyberspace's lapses in gentility underscores a central contradiction inherent in online communication. If it is true that hours spent on the Net are often hours subtracted from watching television, one could argue that the digital era has raised the curtains on a new age of literacy--more people are writing more words than ever before! But what kind of words are we writing? Are we really more literate, or are we sliding ever faster into a quicksand of meaningless irrelevance, of pop-cultural triviality--expressed, usually, in lowercase letters--run amok? E-mail is actually too easy, too casual. Gone are the days when one would worry over a letter to a lover or a relative or a colleague. Now there's just time for that quick e-mail, a few hastily cobbled together thoughts written in a colloquial style that usually borders on unedited stream of consciousness. The danger is obvious: snippy comments to a friend, overly sharp retorts to one's boss, insults mistakenly sent to the target, not the intended audience. E-mail allows us to act before we can think--the perfect tool for a culture of hyperstimulation.
So instead of creating something new, we forward something old. Instead of crafting the perfect phrase, we use a brain-dead abbreviation: imho for In My Humble Opinion, or rotflmao, for Rolling On The Floor Laughing My A-- Off. Got a rumor? E-mail it to 50 people! Instant messaging and chat rooms just accentuate the casual negative. If e-mail requires little thought, then instant messaging--flashing a message directly onto a recipient's computer monitor--is so insubstantial as to be practically nonexistent.
E-mail, ultimately, is a fragile thing, easy to forge, easy to corrupt, easy to destroy. A few weeks ago a co-worker of mine accidentally and irretrievably wiped out 1,500 of his own saved messages. For a person who conducts the bulk of his life online, such a digital tragedy is akin to erasing part of your own memory. Suddenly, nothing's left. It is comforting to think that, if preserved in a retrievable way, all the notes the world is passing back and forth today constitute a vast historical archive, but the opposite may also be true. Earlier this summer, I visited some curators at the Stanford University Library who are hard at work compiling a digital archive of Silicon Valley history. They bemoaned a new, fast-spreading corporate policy that requires the deletion of all corporate e-mails after every 60 or 90 days. As Microsoft and Netscape have learned to their dismay, old e-mails, however trivial they seem when they are written, can and will come back to haunt you. It is best, say the lawyers, to just wipe them all out.
Still, e-mail is enabling radically new forms of worldwide human collaboration. Those 225 million people who can send and receive it represent a network of potentially cooperating individuals dwarfing anything that even the mightiest corporation or government can muster. Mailing-list discussion groups and online conferencing allow us to gather together to work on a multitude of projects that are interesting or helpful to us--to pool our collective efforts in a fashion never before possible. The most obvious place to see this collaboration right now is in the world of software. For decades, programmers have used e-mail to collaborate on projects. With increasing frequency, this collaboration is occurring across company lines, and often without even the spur of commercial incentives. It's happening largely because it can--it's relatively easy for a thousand programmers to collectively contribute to a project using e-mail and the Internet. Perhaps each individual contribution is small, but the scale of the Internet multiplies all efforts dramatically.
Meanwhile, now that we are all connected, day and night, across time zones and oceans and corporate firewalls, we are beginning to lose sight of the distinction between what is work and what is play.
Six years after I logged onto CompuServe for the first time, I went to Australia for three weeks. Midway through my visit, I ended up in Alice Springs, a fraying-at-the-edges frontier town about a thousand miles away from anywhere in the middle of the great Australian outback. An exotic place, nestled among the oldest mountain remnants of the world, where flocks of parrots swoop and flutter through the downtown shopping district. But instead of wandering through the desert seeking out wallabies and feral camels, I found myself dialing long distance to a friend's University of Melbourne Internet account, and transferring from there via a telnet program to my own account at the Well in San Francisco. Once on the Well, I checked my mail to see if a fact checker for Wired magazine had any fresh queries for me concerning a story I had recently submitted.
I was on the job--in large part because I had an e-mail address and had made the Devil's bargain with the wired world. As I listened for the sound of the modem connecting in Alice Springs, I felt in the pit of my stomach that I had lost control over some valuable part of my life. Your employer will refrain from calling you at 11:30 at night, but not from sending an inquiring, hectoring, must-be-promptly-answered-as-soon-as-you-log-on e-mail. E-mail doesn't just collapse distance, it demolishes all boundaries. And that can be, depending on the moment, either a blessing or a curse.How Net sex has transformed the porn industry
When she started her Web site two years ago, Jenteal thought it would just be a hobby. A self-described "total nerd" in high school, she taught herself PhotoShop and put together a site with her fiance, Chris. Then, like legions of other Internet entrepreneurs, Jenteal, 23, found herself in deep. "I gave up all personal time," she says. "I'm at the office at least 10 hours a day, and even when I'm home I'm on my laptop." It is just midmorning on the West Coast, and Jenteal is still groggy from dancing the previous night at a club called Bob's Classy Lady. Later she'll perform a live masturbation scene on her Webcam, or maybe do an explicit online chat. She sees it as building her future. "If in the next year I'm making $50,000 a month from the Web site," she says, "I'll cut way back on [making] movies and dancing. This is going to carry me past my porn career."
In the late 1970s a new technology--cheap, easy, universally accessible--changed the porn business forever. As the movie "Boogie Nights'' showed, the catalyst was video, which had lower production values than film and made name porno actors an unnecessary expense: suddenly, anyone could be a "star.'' Now online technology is having the opposite effect on porn. "Adult'' sites were a $1 billion industry in 1998, according to Forrester Research. But what's new is how "the power structure is changing,'' says Danni Ashe, a stripper turned porn mogul. "The performers are more involved," she says. "Virtually every woman in the business now has her own site."
Ashe was among the first in this less-celebrated class of cyberentrepreneurs. In 1995, after being arrested onstage at a Florida strip club, she needed a change. Ashe read the ''HTML Manual of Style'' and MIT guru Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital,'' then launched Danni's Hard Drive. For $19.95 a month, members can view soft-core photos and video footage, trade racy chat or buy lots of Danni products. According to Ashe, the site has 25,000 members.
That's just a tiny fraction of the audience for online sex. In June Americans spent more time on health sites than porn sites for the first time, but more than half the requests on search engines are "adult-oriented," says Mark Tiarra, who runs the nonprofit trade group United Adult Sites. Though commercial sites are increasingly cooperating with filter companies like NetNanny and SurfWatch to keep kids out, 25 percent of teens in a recent survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners and Websense Inc. said they had visited X-rated sites.
The actors may be the entrepreneurs, but this new porn industry still needs techies. Joshua Rosenfeld, 27, recently left Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen to join the Vivid multimedia porn empire. This porn-geek partnering can lead to culture clash. But more often, the mix is serendipitous. "We're in a time of geek chic," says Jenteal. "A lot of girls go for that type." Rosenfeld says he's having a lot more fun, and he certainly appreciates his new colleagues' charms. But for him the real e-thrills lie elsewhere. The other day, he says, "I heard this one star was learning to build her own site. I thought, 'Wow, that's really sexy'."