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Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

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Advice columnist Carolyn Hax took your questions.

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Posted at 02:34 PM ET, 04/10/2012

Instagram today; e-mail in 1993

So Facebook bought something called Instagram, which has no revenue and about 12 employees and has been fashionable among the digital people for about a week, for 1 billion dollars, which is slightly more than the market value of The New York Times Co., which has a newsroom of roughly 1,300 people last I heard, and is widely regarded as the country’s best newspaper. This does give an ink-stained wretch pause.
Kevin Systrom, right, and Mike Krieger, founders of Instagram. (Instagram via Bloomberg)

(Actually I am not ink-stained so much as carpal-tunneled, hunched, blind and scrunchy-faced with concern that I’ll lose this Starbucks Internet connection in mid-sentence, and our content management system will go blank on me and this timeless prose will be lost forever. This is why I’ve adopted a no-revision, no-proof-reading rule. Type and post, boom, it’s up and we’ll do triage later, adding “a point” or “facts” or whatever as needed.)

My initial thought is defensive: No one equates merit, in a deeper sense, with book value. The stock market does not tell us what really matters in this world. What really matters are things like love, and friendship, and having a reliable closer. What really matters is knowing how to shape a shot off the pine straw so that it goes under a limb and hangs a right and plops onto the green near the flag. So let’s not get overly excited about some rich guys spending money on a software program.

That said ... it is difficult to avoid the sensation that the media world as we have known it will not be around in 10 years. Because it actually ended about five years ago. Or 15, even.

The one thing for sure is that any prediction of the future will be incorrect, and will suffer from a lack of imagination. People knew the Internet would be a big deal, but many of us were initially stuck on the idea that it would be a conveyance for meritorious information, akin to an encyclopedia. I heard somewhere (probably the Gleick book) that a third of the all the computer processing power in the world is devoted to games.

Nothing is more perilous than going back into the archives [Copy editor: I know “back” sounds redundant there, but I vote we let it go, in part due to the no-revision rule] and digging up a future-of-technology story. That’s like pulling out old prom photos. (Nice powder-blue tux!And what a mullet!)]

Nonetheless, purely for research purposes, here is the piece I alluded to the other day, published in 1993 in The Washington Post’s Style section, about this new thing called “E-mail” (it is not on the Web unless you purchase it, but I’m pasting the whole thing in here, complete with sub-heds):

By J.A.
The E-mail man is explaining what’s wrong with sending a letter. You know, a piece of paper. A thin pulp-based communication unit.
“Look what you have to do. You have to compose the letter, you actually have to type it or print it, you have to find an envelope and a stamp, find the right address ...”
And so on, mind-throbbing labor, the communications equivalent of beating laundry on a rock.
But E-mail is easy, supposedly. Fast. Button-quick. E-mail is electronic mail, but no one calls it electronic mail, in the same way that no one talks about communicating telephonically. E-mail is basically just a message zinging from one computer to another. As opposed to “snail mail,” which is mail handled by the U.S. Postal Service.
The E-mail man says of E-mail, “It’s used by the knowledge elite at this point, but it’s pushing down lower and lower, until it will be used by the common denominator.”
Who is you, perhaps.
The E-mail man’s name is Bo Pitsker, but in the E-mail world he’s probably better known as Bpitsker@interop.com. He works for a company called Interop, where his title is director of INTEROPnet . (Computer people mangle the English language, but it’s precision mangling.) Interop organizes conventions — there was a big one in Washington earlier this month — that promote “interoperability” of computer systems. Linkage. Gateways. Compatibility. They see that fabled electronic global village we’ve heard so much about, in which someone in suburban Washington can chat, keyboard to keyboard, with someone in suburban Rangoon.
There is already an explosion of communication on something called the Internet, the planet-spanning and ungoverned “network of networks” originally started by the Pentagon. No one knows how big the Internet is, how elaborate the webbing.
If the computer people are right, E-mail is the next mundane tool of civilized life, no different from the phone or the car or the TV or the microwave. E-mail has already changed the way corporations do business, soon it may change the way you shout at your congressman, and perhaps someday it will even change the way you talk to Mom. Already, millions of people subscribe to commercial E-mail networks, like CompuServe and Prodigy. People meet on computer bulletin boards, fall in love, raise children (at some point, of course, they have to get off-line).
The White House has just started accepting E-mail. It has also put speeches and briefings on-line. You can access White House transcripts. Or you can send a message to Bill Clinton.
But he won’t beep you back. He’ll send a letter, by snail mail. Because the White House, like everyone else, is still trying to figure this thing out exactly.
E-mail may turn out to be the best and worst thing to happen to this town since the invention of the telephone. Washington’s main industry is word-transfer, and now the machinery of Washington has a lubricious new component.
“You can say more quicker in E-mail than you can in a personal visit, and maybe even a phone call. Personal visits in an office structure take on a social nature,” says Rep. Charlie Rose, the North Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Administration Committee and admits to being the “techno-nut” of Congress.
But E-mail also fosters chatter. It is a blatherer’s dream. Washington doesn’t really need another way to gab. There are already enough units of verbiage, enough mechanisms for gaseousness.
Rose is eyeing the E-mail situation cautiously. Congress has had in-house E-mail for years, but will soon experiment with a system that will allow a few specially selected members to receive electronic messages from — here’s the scary part — constituents. Already Congress suffers from a surfeit of constituent communication. The roaring masses respond to the batons of radio talk show hosts, and there is the frightening thought of lobbyists using E-mail to send the same bleating message over and over.
“I think we’ve got to figure out a way to keep the E-mail system from absolutely swamping the congressional offices,” says Rose.
E-mail is a great way for any organization to communicate in-house, to reach decisions or just to banter, but it lacks the permanence of hard copy, a fact that creates a bit of an archival dilemma in a town that likes to save every scrap of paper. What do you do with the E-mail at the end of the day? Store it? Trash it? Some of that E-mail could have historical or even criminal significance; when the Clintonites arrived at the White House the computer hard drives were missing, impounded by investigators looking for evidence in the Clinton passport files case.
One other problem: the Postal Service. What will happen to it if E-mail explodes?
“One of our considerations clearly has to be that the fax machine and E-mail are hurting the Postal Service,” says Rose. “E-mail is financial trouble for the Postal Service. And I think the Postal Service better get in the E-mail business quick if it hopes to stay current with the times.”
Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders says, “We don’t have specific plans to get involved with that,” but adds, “We look at anything that might compete with hard-copy mail service, and electronic mail is one of them.”
Sending Clinton a Message
Naturally the Clintonites are big E-mailers. One of the first things the Clinton White House did was open up E-mail lines to the public. Clinton’s signed on to MCI Mail, CompuServe and America Online. And through the Internet, millions of computer users can send the president a message at 75300.3115@compuserve.com and clintonpz@aol.com and clinton-hq@Campaign92.org. Clinton staffers say they’re getting upwards of 700 messages a day.
Clinton, they say, may hold an “on-line town meeting.”
But perhaps the most startling development is the computer hacker’s ability to access White House documents. It’s simple. Hit a few commands and suddenly you’re reading the transcript of a background briefing by someone like, say, Gene Sperling, an economic policy deputy.
This means you can bypass the news media (the hated gatekeepers of information) and see for yourself what the White House is saying. You can read quotes in their entirety, including classic Clintonisms that are just too long for the daily press. Like the other day, California reporters were badgering Clinton about his military cuts in that state, and Clinton answered with a fusillade of statistics:
“If no announcement had been made yesterday, here’s what would have been the picture by 1997: a 40-percent reduction in the defense budget, a 35-percent reduction in personnel, a 56-percent reduction in our presence overseas, and a 9-percent reduction in bases. Now, if we permitted that to happen, what state would be hurt worst? California. Why? Because California, with 12 percent of the nation’s population, received 21 percent of the total defense budget last year.”
Phew! And that’s only a sample of the delights that can be found in White House cyberspace. The transcripts include banter and a parenthetical laugh track. An excerpt from Clinton’s speech to the American Ireland Foundation on Tuesday:
“ ... Let me ask you: Do you like purple? (Laughter.) I want you to understand that is not royal purple. That is a substitute, because he made the ultimate sacrifice; he gave his President the green. (Applause.)”
When Clinton arrived in town, he had a revelation. He saw, instantly, one of the reasons why his campaign had been so much better than George Bush’s: The White House phones were a joke. Bush was using “Jimmy Carter’s phone system,” as Clinton told some legislators. A few of the phones couldn’t even transfer a call. On the desk would be a phone attached to a cable the size of a small intestine.
Even the computers were old. Even the E-mail.
“It’s 1980s technology. Early ‘80s technology,” says Jock Gill.
“It’s not RAM-resident,” says Jeff Eller. He generously explains, “The program does not hang out in the RAM portion of the computer.”
Eller and Gill work in the communications office and are the White House’s two main computer people. George Stephanopoulos got profiled in the Wall Street Journal and got letters from women, Eller joked, but when he got profiled in the Journal he got letters from telephone vendors.
Eller and Gill are mulling whether to get faster, more easily accessed E-mail messages. The vice president’s office is experimenting with a direct computer-to-computer network, trying to show the way for the rest of the White House campus.
“There’s a funding issue. There’s a cabling issue,” says Eller.
By a cabling issue he means a hole-in-the-wall issue.
“This building is a historic building,” says Gill. “You don’t just take a drill and go rreeooowwwwwwww ...”
And what about the big guy? Bubba himself? Does he use E-mail too? Does he get booped and boop back?
“He tends to write everything out on a legal pad. The difference is, he knows what E-mail is, he knows what computers are,” says Eller. “I don’t feel the least bit slighted because Clinton doesn’t sit there typing on a computer, because he gets it philosophically.”
He adds, “I’m told the president can type.”
Making It Simple
There is nothing wrong with a legal pad. It’s actually a nifty device.
The measure of technological success is not how complicated something is, but how simple. The design of an everyday object may have to go through a complexity phase, but eventually it will evolve back toward simplicity. The paper clip, the ax handle, the wheelbarrow all have simple designs. Four tines on a fork are better than five. A simple copying machine is better than one with so many buttons it looks like it could fly.
E-mail will only become ubiquitous if it becomes simpler. Right now, it still requires patience, practice, a willingness to embrace jargon, not to mention the more basic tolerance of the computer screen itself.
“People are scared of machines,” says Rep. Rose. “It took a long time to get all the congressional offices to use electric typewriters.”
If you sign on to a Washington-area bulletin board called Pen and Brush, it greets you with friendly language, but moments later you may find yourself facing a menu of choices that looks like this:
(A) ASCII
(X) Xmodem (Checksum)
(C) Xmodem (CRC)
(O) Ymodem (NON batch)
(Y) Batch Ymodem
(Z) Zmodem (batch)
(H) HS/Link (bidirectional)
(N) None
This is elementary stuff. But is the common denominator ready for it?
The main problem with computers is that they only do what they are programmed to do, and are therefore unable to act sensibly. Computers refuse to get the gist of things.
While other computeroids glide in and out of the medium, you may find yourself stumbling along, falling into black holes from which there is no apparent exit, panicking, pounding keys randomly, begging the machine to let you leave, staring in horror as the words COMMAND NOT RECOGNIZED flash again and again on the screen, and then finally doing the shameful deed of simply turning the machine off, watching the chaos fade to black.
That shuts the machine up, but then you have to deal with people on an analog basis. Like, in person.
Carnival of the Geeks
There was a time, you may remember, when the computer world didn’t get along with itself. One computer system, like IBM, would not be “compatible” with another, like Apple. The computer world was divided up into pools of compatibility, and almost every company figured the secret to success would be to trap a customer in one brand for life.
The new wave is “interoperability.”
“The greater goal of mankind is served by making things work together,” says Dan Lynch, the president of Interop.
His convention was packed: thousands of people, with 20,000 expected over three days. They wandered among booths with big signs saying NetBlazer and Xyplex and Proteon and IBM (”Yes we’re open — Multiprotocol”), and, for those who are nearly beyond words altogether, “TCP/IP-Telnet, Mail, FTP, NFS.”
At Interop the geeks weren’t a sideshow. They were the entire carnival. Fortunately, computer geeks have a sense of humor about themselves. They use the word “geek” themselves. “It’s not as bad as being called a lawyer,” said Dan Lynch with a laugh.
Everyone is buzzing about the Internet. It’s a word you will hear more and more about in coming years, in the same way that your great-grandparents heard about this thing called The Phone Company. The Internet can link your home computer to the White House or the National Science Foundation or some sultanate in the Middle East. Naturally, E-mail quickly takes on adult themes; you can find electronic rooms containing people with your special sexual predilection.
The Internet is not a thing, exactly. It has no building. It is just a series of “protocols” that allow different computer networks to talk to one another. For years the Internet was used mainly by universities, but it is growing at an almost alarming rate, jumping from 200 networks in 1985 to more than 8,000 today.
No one owns it. No one controls it. It’s just there, a gaggle of wires, a fact of modern life.
E-Mail at a Price
E-mail isn’t free. A single message on MCI Mail, for example, costs 50 cents for up to 500 words, plus a sign-up fee of $35. That’s a bargain if you’re sending it across the country, but pricey if you’re talking to your neighbor.
E-mail isn’t always safe. The White House, for one, has to worry about computer viruses, and has to screen messages for anything looking fishy.
E-mail isn’t always diplomatic. It has the spontaneity of oral speech but is in fact frozen speech. Cruel words, written in haste, will resonate in text. Vulgar jokes can get printed out at the end of the day and the ribald context is lost. When hotheads get in a screaming match over E-mail, this is called “flaming.” Veteran E-mailers advise newcomers to cool down before sending incendiary messages. A few hours later you may regret having called your boss a pustule on the buttocks of the civilized world, or whatnot.
The newest invention is the MUD. That’s the multiple user dimension. It’s like a computer bulletin board, in that people can send messages back and forth, except that they don’t have to take turns. Rather they can hurl messages simultaneously, the way people do in a real shouting match.
“There is even a conference on the Internet for recovering MUD addicts,” reports Paul Saffo, president of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.
He says there has been a 15 percent increase in traffic on the Internet every month — the greatest leap in letter-writing since the end of the 1700s, the age of Samuel Johnson, who would think nothing of writing a letter to his neighbor across the street.
Says Saffo, “The people who are on the cutting edge of the electronic frontier are the most avid letter-writers on the planet today. It’s just they don’t use paper. They use screens and electrons.”
Someday, perhaps, the computer revolution that has given us so much velocity in our communication will cause a backlash. A new subculture will emerge that will use inkwells and quill pens. It will champion slow communication, the burdensome writing tools that encourage contemplation and reflection. It will say that handwritten letters have dignity. It will argue that thoughts need time to steep, like a cup of tea.
This will surely happen first in California.

By  |  02:34 PM ET, 04/10/2012

 
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