Thursday, April 16, 2009

E-mail and the death of trees

I first used e-mail as a student, in the mid 1980s. Sadly I wasn't a particularly visionary type of student, and I didn't take much interest in it.

In 1997, when I got my first dial-up connection at home, things were different. By then nobody could miss what e-mail was, and I took to it like a banker to money. Within six months I had e-mail contacts on five continents, a good proportion of whom I considered "friends".

Combined with Usenet, the medium suited me to perfection. I now had a public profile and an active private correspondence. I loved to take my time writing, rewriting and polishing to put the perfect gloss on whatever I wanted to say. "Spinning", it might be called, and the medium was beautifully tailored to that. (Alas, this is no longer the case. Somehow I don't have that kind of time any more. Nowadays, even blog posts feel hurried.)

In that first rush of enthusiasm, I naïvely thought that e-mail was free; and as freely, I gave my address to everyone as my preferred contact method. Better, I thought, that I should receive junk mail in electronic form, rather than tree-eating paper.

What I hadn't thought through - and in retrospect it seems horrifyingly obvious, but the world looked different back then - was the economics of e-mail technology. It never occurred to me that people would send me e-mail without even caring whether I read it or not.

The story of my personal battle with spam is stirring, but long, and its ending is not happy. I have seldom managed to convey the depth of my hatred for spammers. I'm not talking just about pornographers, fraudsters, Nigerians offering money - that subject is quite exhaustively documented elsewhere - but the daily deluge of unwanted mails about the most tedious of subjects - drugs, holidays, used cars, penis enlargement, jobs in Chicago, Ukrainian brides, Bollywood movies, home-education courses in everything from acupuncture to zoophilia...

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing a story I noticed today: spam is "killing the environment", apparently.

That's a headline I can greet with qualified pleasure. Extremely qualified. We're talking fully bonded, industry-certified, Masters-educated pleasure here. It's nice to see an attack on the (still occasionally touted) fallacy that junk e-mail is environmentally benign, compared with junk paper through the door. But this study is commissioned by McAfee, who can't resist the temptation to imply that the problem could be solved by using their software.

Yeah, right. That's like treating depression by drinking yourself into a stupor.

No, the treatment for spam - if there is one - has to be legal, not technical, and it has to be directed at the people who pay for it, not those who send it. It's the economics of e-mail that creates the problem, and that's what has to be changed. For the recipients to have to buy and maintain spam filters - that's no better than paying protection money.


Eric Lester said...

Email is broken, I'm afraid. Our poor little Barracuda rejects well over 90% of the mail that hits our gateway every day. When a user complains that they have actually gotten some nasty spam in their inbox, I like to show them what they didn't get. It's probably a waste of time, though. These are the same people that will complain because we won't let them send attachments over 10MB. Sigh.

vet said...

Yeah, I'm afraid you may be right. What we need is a successor to e-mail where the sender does get charged a token amount per message sent.

But that raises its own set of problems - not least, who should get all that money, and why?