jordan_pollack's picture
Professor and Chairman of Computer Science, Brandeis University
Electronic Mail

I've changed my mind about electronic mail. When I first used email in graduate school in 1980, it was a dream. It was the most marvelous and practical invention of computer science. A text message quickly typed and reliably delivered (or be told of an error) allowed a new kind of asynchronous communication. It was cheaper (free), faster, and much more efficient than mail, phone, or fax, with a roundtrip in minutes. Only your colleagues had your address, but you could find people at other places using "finger". Colleagues started sharing text-formatted data tables, where 50K bytes was a big email message!

Then came attachments. This hack to insert 33% bloated 8-bit binary files inside of 7-bit text email opened a Pandora's box. Suddenly anyone had the right to send any size package for FREE, like a Socialized United Parcel Service. Microsoft Outlook made it "drag 'n drop" easy for bureaucrats to send word documents. Many computer scientists saw the future and screamed "JUST SEND TEXT" but it was too late. Microsoft kept tweaking its proprietary file formats forcing anyone with email to upgrade Microsoft Office. (I thought they finally stopped with Office 97, but now I am getting DOC-X-files, which might as well be in Martian!)

We faced AOL newbies, mailing lists, free webmail, hotmail spam, RTF mail, chain letters, html mail, musical mail, flash mail, javascript mail, viruses, spybits, faked URL's, phishing, Nigerian cons, Powerpoint arms races, spam-blocking spam, viral videos, Plaxo updates, Facebook friendings, ad nauseum.

The worst part is the legal precedent that your employer "owns" the mail sent out over the network provided. It is as if they own the soundwaves which emit from your throat over the phone. An idiot judgment leads to two Kafkaesque absurdities:

First, if you send email with an ethnic slur, receive email with a picture of a naked child or a copyrghted MP3, you can be fired. Use email to organize a Union? Fugget about it! Second, all email sent and received must now be archived as critical business documents to comply with Sarbanes Oxley. And Homeland Security wants rights to monitor ISP data streams and stores, and hope no warrants are needed for data older than 90 days.

Free Speech in the Information Age isn't your right to post anonymously on a soapbox blog or newspaper story. It means that, if we agree, I should be able to send any data in any file format, with any encryption, from a computer I am using to one your are on, provided we pay for the broadband freight. There is no reason that any government, carrier, or corporation should have any right to store, read, or interpret our digital communications. Show just cause and get a warrant, even if you think an employee is spying or a student is pirating music.

Email is now a nightmare that we have to wake up from. I don't have a solution yet, but I believe the key to re-imagine email is to realize that our computers and phones are "always on" the net. So we can begin with synchronous messaging (both sender and receiver are online) — a cross between file sharing, SMS texting, and instant messaging — and then add grid storage mechanisms for asynchronous delivery, multiple recipients, and reliability.

Until then, call me.