The Washington Post

E-mail inventor: Connection often more important than content

Correction: Correction: 

The Smithsonian Institution on Thursday acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights and more than 50,000 lines of computer code that chronicle the invention of e-mail. The material will be archived in the National Museum of American History and eventually entered into an online exhibit.

E-mail was the brainchild in 1978 of V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, at the time a high school student in New Jersey.

Ayyadurai spoke with The Washington Post about his take on innovation. The following is an excerpt:

Q: Where do we lose American students in math and science, and how can we reverse the tide?

A: The problems of today’s world are not just learning how to build a computer better or writing a software program. A lot of that stuff is being outsourced, like in America. The big problems are large-scale systems — so the educational system, transportation system, relationships as a system. These systems are very, very complex. And my view is that students really want to look at these big systems. They don’t just want to learn a particular skill.

What state is America’s innovation economy in today, and how can it regain its competitive edge globally?

Overall, we have a tremendous amount of freedom here. And that awareness is what, I think, needs to be developed for people to understand what opportunities are here. America’s still the greatest country in the world to innovate. It’s got the basic infrastructure, the basic ethos, the basic values. So we should not really have any type of jobs issues here. I think the political leadership needs to say, “Look, this country’s founded on freedom. And innovation, actually, demands freedom and freedom demands innovation.” . . . I don’t think there’s more money we need to throw at it, but I think it’s individuals taking responsibility also.

Are we over-communicating?

I think people are communicating in the sense they have sort of missed out on what is communication. A lot of times when people are texting — this is my theory on it — it’s not the content, I mean you don’t need to text, but people are doing it to connect with another human being. So, a lot of the information is almost irrelevant. So I think what people are really trying to do in that over-communication is they are trying to connect. And I think we’re in this phase now in humanity, we have all these communication vehicles, but we still are, as humans, trying to figure out: How do we connect?

Emi Kolawole is the editor-in-residence at Stanford University's, where she works on media experimentation and design.
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