This comes about through a series of recent irritations, all of which will be familiar to most regular emailers. Their combined effect is to make me nervous about how dependent on email I’ve become in my job; but they’ve also revealed a glimmer of possibility that life could continue without it. It is a bit of a change from the view I’ve developed over the past few years that email is indispensable, and reason enough of its own for the existence of the internet.
You can partly blame Anna Kournikova – or the Dutch author of the virus that masqueraded as a picture of the tennis star – for this. Although not hugely destructive, this latest tease showed once again how vulnerable organisations are to viruses. When the Prolin virus did the rounds a month or so ago, a number of imprudent IDG staff were caught, costing our IT toilers a significant amount of time. Anna K didn’t have the same hit rate but the amount of energy consumed by media coverage and antivirus company posturing after the outbreak would have been enough to light up a small city for a week.
The most extraordinary thing is that organisations are prepared to put up with this level of carelessness from internet service providers. Would we allow our water supply company to infect us with one bug after another, because its filtration system wasn't up to the job? I don't think so. Yet ISPs don't seem keen to take responsibility for keeping their pipes free of computer viruses. If it's a technical issue that is stopping them from tackling the problem, they should talk to antivirus companies, which have rightly identified ISPs as the point in the network where effective filters are needed. ISPs must do better than at present; and the first that is able to offer a truly secure service will make a killing.
Another thing that's been spoiling my recent email experience is spam. I'm not referring to the constant stream of IT-related press releases that flood my in-box -- some of those are actually newsworthy. No, it's the unrequested cures for sexual dysfunction and mortgage relief that are really beginning to annoy me.
Such junk mail used to be a weekly occurrence, at worst, but lately it's daily. I have no idea how I've become a target (I've never been to a site that sells financial products in my life -- honest). Spammers might try to glorify what they do by calling it email marketing, but this consumer ain't buying, so leave me alone.
Viruses, spam -- small imperfections in an otherwise fantastically powerful communications tool? Well, maybe. But when I realised the other day the extent to which I rely on email, it came to me that, as technology goes, it's far from dependable. I'd been getting alerts that my mail file was pushing the allowable limit. Being a responsible citizen, in an idle moment I set about deleting messages from my sent folder. I'd been at it for 10 minutes or so, feeling pleased at my ruthlessness in disposing of mail from three or four years ago that I once thought I could never be without. But the folder showed no sign of being any emptier. I selected all to get an idea of how many were left: there were 7342. Arrrgh. What had happened to me -- my working world had transferred itself to my mail file. All my contacts, story leads and vital correspondence were contained in there. How could I ever function without it? Well, I'm finding out sooner than I ever imagined.
This editorial is being written in the air, above the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. An hour before leaving the office ahead of my departure, I cheerfully handed my laptop over to the IT staff. They were to quickly upgrade it to the latest version of the email software so I could enable an agent that would forward messages to a Hotmail account. That way I would be guaranteed access to email while travelling, either from my laptop or through a cybercafe.
That was the theory, anyway. As it turned out, the "quick upgrade" ended, as they inevitably do, in tears with the local copy of my mail file nuked, no time to restore it, a mail forwarding agent that didn't work, and the conviction that email is tyrannising me. I need to overcome my dependency. In the meantime, I need to find a cybercafe so I can file this editorial.