Society goes online

A few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania software engineer named Christopher Love decided he had something to say to Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

So Love sent him an e-mail via the Iraqi news agency, and a few days later, Hussein apparently replied with a 10-page note of his own.

Welcome to the world since e-mail. It's state of mind, as much as it is a place, where war, geography, politics, social status and education are no longer enough to prevent two people with unfettered Internet access from communicating.

"We can't locate Saddam Hussein, but we can e-mail him," said Phillip Zimmermann, creator of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption code, which allows its users to communicate via e-mail without third parties being able to read any intercepted messages.

But, Zimmermann said, that's the way of the world with e-mail, a medium that has the immediacy of a phone call but that's much more powerful than telephones and most other kinds of communication.

E-mail has that power because it's an instant, asynchronous form of communication, according to Watts Humphrey, a fellow with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It's instant communication, but both parties don't need to be online at the same time for it to be effective, said Humphrey.

"For instance, I used to call people to arrange for meetings. Now I e-mail them to arrange for phone calls," said Humphrey, who set up IBM's first internal e-mail network in 1979. "I recently made two trips around the world and arranged the whole thing, both itineraries, with e-mail. You couldn't even do that with phones."

That ability to reach into the most remote parts of the world has made e-mail the choice of people in trouble to communicate with the outside world.

"You could be in some remote part of the world, and you could send an e-mail and it gets there," Zimmermann said. He related the story of a man in Germany whose father was trapped in Sarajevo in the midst of a siege during the Bosnian conflict. He said the man's father had only one hour of electricity per day and the father used that hour to communicate with the outside world via e-mail.

"E-mail has the ability to reach into and out of areas that are very difficult to reach through other means," Zimmermann said. "Especially if you are surrounded."

That ability to crush time and space could lead to a greater understanding between peoples, but it could also result in a backlash, said professor Brian Palmer, who teaches a course on globalization at Harvard University.

"The Internet means massive and near-instantaneous sharing of information and points of view, outlooks, values and ideologies," Palmer said. "It is not just train schedules and stock prices.

"That can lead toward an emerging world community, particularly if we think of community as a sphere of dialogue of communication," Palmer said. "A Buddhist in Sri Lanka and a secular person in Manhattan can communicate about their visions of a good life in an easy and inexpensive way.

"But presence can also be seen as threatening," Palmer added. "The availability of democratic ideas can be something very threatening -- the availability of pornography, too, for instance. The same ease of communication can create fundamentalist backlashes."

The intimacy of e-mail also has a commercial role, said Jeff Zabin, director at the Boston-based consulting firm Seurat Co. and co-author of The Seven Steps to Nirvana: Strategic Insights into eBusiness Transformation (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

"In my view, the promise of e-mail is not so much that it pushes marketing communications into the future, but that it returns it to the past," Zabin wrote in an e-mail interview. "Consider that long ago the corner merchant knew all of his customers by name and could make recommendations to them based on ... his knowledge of their individual likes and dislikes."

Zabin said that e-mail is the means for companies using personalization software to have those intimate conversations with their customers once again.

"The promise of e-mail as a permission-based marketing tool for outbound communications is that it allows companies to build relationship capital by approaching their customers—no matter how many or how geographically dispersed—as individuals."

In addition to changing the planet, e-mail affects individuals in countless ways, as well.

"It has caused a resurgence of letter writing," Zimmermann said. "For a long time, telephoning was replacing letter writing. People would just pick up the phone and they would call."

But, he added, there is a difference between the way letters were written in longhand and how most people just blast out e-mail messages.

"Very careful, deliberative thinking would go into writing," Zimmermann said. "You would compose things carefully when you wrote them, and there was a kind of slowness to it. E-mail has the immediacy of a phone call; it tends to make you more careless, which is why people say things in e-mail that are more offensive. There is an itchy trigger finger in e-mail."

This is something that Christina Bauer, president and CEO of Mindful Technologies Inc. in Braintree, Mass., said she has noticed as well.

"Unlike paper, however, it is far easier and quicker to write an e-mail, so the company saves the time and hassle of having paper memos typed, copied and distributed," Bauer wrote in an e-mail interview. "Unfortunately that process constituted a cooling off period that probably prevented a lot of inappropriate communication. Unsavory e-mail messages or flame mails have now become the dark side of e-mail."

Zimmermann said this darkness can be compounded through another unsavory aspect of e-mail: forwarding. No one would have ever thought of forwarding a regular letter to all his friends, but e-mail messages are forwarded all the time, something Zimmermann doesn't like.

Palmer said there's some evidence that problems caused by the immediacy of e-mail and the potential for misconstrued emotions have begun to be addressed by regular users of e-mail and its cousins, instant messaging and chat software.

Palmer pointed to the work of professor Viveka Adelsward of Linkoping University in Sweden. E-mail means, instant communication, but it lacks body language or even the vocal inflections that one would have over the telephone to help translate the true meaning of words.

Adelsward has been studying what that has meant for people who communicate via instant electronic means and she has begun to discover it has had an impact.

People tend to be more reflective, more aware of their own emotions, according to Adelsward's work.

Palmer said that in communicating via e-mail, people need to often convey emotion with emoticons or abbreviations such as LOL (for laughing out loud). As people stop to check what they are feeling and work to clarify their true meaning, they become more self-reflective, and that carries over into their everyday life as well, Adelsward has begun to discover.

"It's made people more and more aware of their own performances," Palmer said. "It's one small but intriguing example of a change in everyday behavior."

Aside from bringing a greater awareness of emotions, e-mail will probably have deeper effects.

The telegraph changed the way people wrote in the 19th century. When people started paying per word, they began to get very precise in the language they chose, Palmer said. Already, he said, e-mail has become an idiom unto itself. He points to the merger of Ford Motor Co. and Volvo. The Swedes tend to be a lot more laid-back than many of their American colleagues, he said. What passes as appropriate in Sweden would seem a little too familiar in the U.S., Palmer said.

However, in the world of e-mail, familiar is OK. Palmer said he believes that the fact that both Ford and Volvo managers know and understand how e-mail works and how to communicate with it helped the merger.

E-mail is a universal, Bauer said.

"In my mind, e-mail has become the primary method of business communication, period," Bauer said. "I know the first thing I do when I get into the office is check my e-mail. It's hard to imagine the old days, when checking your in-box for paper memos was an important part of your day."

Humphrey points to his own experience as evidence of just how much e-mail has changed the world. In 1986, Humphrey retired from his full-time job in Pittsburgh but wanted to continue to work—he is currently putting the finishing touches on a new book, Winning with Software: An Executive Strategy, to be published by Addison Wesley in Boston.

"I have a secretary and an office in Pittsburgh, but I work most of the time out of my office in Sarasota, Fla.," Humphrey said.

In a sense, e-mail made telecommuting possible.

As for what the next 30 years will bring, Humphrey said he wonders if there will have to be some limits on spam or a way to block unwanted messages in order to keep the medium alive.

"It would be very much like a kind of police," Humphrey said. "I'm talking about data police. Maybe a suitable tax on junk mail. You can't replace time. You can replace almost everything else but you can't replace time."

Humphrey said that need to save time and separate the wheat from the chaff might lead to the creation of search engines that sift through personal e-mail accounts to find relevant and necessary messages.

An early e-mail adopter at IBM

In 1979, Watts Humphrey's boss, Jack Keuhler, then an IBM senior vice president, asked Humphrey to set up an internal network for what would eventually be called e-mail. Humphrey said he wasn't sure how people would react to the system, but Keuhler assured him that he would use it.

"He thought we ought to do it," said Humphrey, now a fellow at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "He thought if he started using it, other people would feel they had to use it."

The network was set up, connecting Keuhler and his immediate reports. It didn't take long before people realized that, while they couldn't always get Keuhler on the phone or be sure he read their memos, e-mail was a different story.

"You could get him by e-mail," Humphrey said.

Word began to spread, and more and more people asked Humphrey for access to the system.

"You could reach people, you didn't have to wait, and you didn't have to hang on the phone," Humphrey said.

"In retrospect, it is obvious that it would take off, but at the time it wasn't so obvious," Humphrey said. He credited Keuhler's vision for helping get e-mail started within IBM.

"He is a marvelous guy," Humphrey said of Keuhler, who eventually became president and vice chairman of IBM.

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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