Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

E-mail's voluminous indiscretion.

I just sent my 10-year old daughter an e-mail greeting card. I sent it because she sent me one first, and I've been a dad long enough to understand how these things work. But in my heart, I don't hold with e-mail greeting cards. My heart has in fact formed a callus of Grinchlike hardness, becoming cynical in the face of the Ethernet's bounty.

It started last Christmas. The minions of various technology vendors were sending me jolly messages along these lines: "Happy Holidays, Lew McCreary! A festive seasonal greeting awaits you at, courtesy of your friends here at Technorific Inc.!" (Not that I'd ever heard of Technorific or was aware of having any friends who worked there.) Curious, I sampled the little animated executable that lay in wait. The first one felt just tawdry enough (tinny jingle-bells, winking lights, Technorific written in icicles) that I forwent the rest. Christmas is the season when humanity falls far short of its glowing ideal of connection and unity. Something about the barren flatness of the e-mail greeting called added attention to this gap between ideal and actuality. And in a twinkling I had become repulsively modern, with a whiplash-inducing acceleration beyond genuine sentiment into mere simulation-where the pretence is completely transparent and the message appears to scream out, "Look upon and marvel at my clumsily engineered insincerity!" At some point, even if it's the thought that counts, you're forced to consider whether when the mode of expression is so empty and easy, it can count for much. Freshly exposed to the self-satisfied bogusness of e-mailed season's greetings, I began to reconsider the vast stew of e-mail more generally.

E-mail is to a handwritten postcard as stadium lighting is to a candle.

Where a postcard is personal and unique, e-mail invalidates its own significance as the message spreads and touches more and more recipients.

Sometimes I receive deeply disturbing e-mail from total strangers who share with me their crackbrained theories of devil worship, political cabal and psychotropic nutrition. These purport to have been sent to me personally, yet I know that thousands of other poor jerks are now squinting, incredulous, at the exact same insanities. In the e-mail queue, demented yawps exist equally with marketing missives, many pretending to contain urgent information that I allegedly requested, or bearing devious titles ("Miss you!") to suggest that they were sent by someone named Yvette whom I desperately want to hear from.

I'll concede that e-mail can be a fine medium for certain kinds of communication. For example, it's a welcome development that readers of this magazine share their thoughts with us more freely since e-mail's onset. But because it is so darn cheap and easy to deploy recklessly, e-mail has now coagulated into an appalling slop of nearly indistinguishable contents. Sane businesspeople wade into it with dread, since finding amid the drivel something you actually need or want can be a futile if not demeaning task.

Short of filtering technologies that screen out messages from all unknown senders, there may be no solution. I suspect it will become common for people to reserve secret e-mail addresses for the exclusive use of family, friends and close colleagues. Or to change addresses often to keep the spammers and crackpots one step behind. But until smart filtering can distinguish what you really want to know from the mass of goo that you hope never to see, the brutal slog through e-mail hell will be your destiny.

Editorial Director Lew McCreary can be reached at you dare.

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