Click to Start – Tinkering Around With New Technology

Did you know it’s the thirty second anniversary of email this year? Today many of us take email completely for granted. Some of us are addicted – hands up all those who regularly rise in the middle of the night ‘just to check the email’? We don’t just rely on email, we actively wait for messages to arrive. And our use has moved beyond the purely functional. Email is a communication medium in its own right, with its own grammar, language, etiquette and rules.

In my last Click to Start I explored the notion of the next big idea, the next big leap forward. Email was such a leap, and after stumbling across information about the first ever email the other day, it threw into relief again the question of new technology, and those early adopters who set the pace for us fast followers.

In late 1971 a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent what is acknowledged as the first every email message. The email was sent on ARPANET, a network of computers that was the precursor to the Internet. Tomlinson says he sent a number of test messages, "The test messages were entirely forgettable. . . . Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar." You can read a good article about Ray and his invention of email here.

Tomlinson is also the man who put the now ubiquitous ‘@’ sign into the email address, separating the user name from the name of the destination computer.

We never looked back from Ray Tomlinson’s first emails – sent, incidentally, from one machine to another in his office, albeit via the Net. Over the past thirty years email has spawned a culture of communication which has changed the way we live and work.

Email is fundamental to transacting business each day, many businesses would grind to a halt without the ability to instantly send messages and computer files across the street, and across the world.

Email has, I’d argue, changed family interactions as well. I remember my boarding school days in the 1970s and 1980s, the weekly obligatory letter writing home, under the watchful gaze of a prefect or teacher.

Nowadays families stay in touch around the world, not just with email, but in moments using later tools like the incredibly popular ‘instant messaging’ programs from companies like Microsoft and Yahoo.

My own family, which at varying times has seen my various siblings in a number of countries, uses email constantly to stay in touch, from arranging Sunday lunches to checking on the welfare of our eldest brother, a journalist who spent the Iraqi war in Baghdad, communicating via email, laptop and sat-phone. Clearly a worrying time for us, but occasional emails to us were comforting. Having just read another journalist’s book, giving an account of those weeks earlier this year, I now appreciate just how difficult the circumstances were. I’m slightly sheepish at having emailed my brother to ask him to download, sign and fax to me a document – an email sent without a thought from my comfortable, not-under-American-tank-fire Melbourne office.

The best tool, we found, incidentally, to track his progress, was the quite marvellous Google News system. By searching on my brother’s name, we were able to see, virtually in real time, the articles he was writing, appearing on the web sites of newspapers around the world.

Our reaction is typical, a new technology arrives, and people discover their own applications and uses, most relevant to their particular circumstances. They create their own rules and parameters. And so a new language and etiquette evolves.

Thus it is with email, there is no ‘instruction manual’ for email, but, like the other forms of written language, guidelines have emerged, developed, and been adopted. Some are practical, some whimsical, some simply good sense.

What’s also interesting is how, as a universal communication tool, email, with its commonly accepted styles and forms, actually causes problems. It ignores the fact there are real geographic, cultural and linguistic barriers. It assumes everyone knows why you don’t type in ALL CAPITALS (it’s considered to be ‘shouting’); or what an ‘:)’ symbol means (a ‘smiley face’).

I’m rather a fan of the smiley face, and other ’emoticons’ as they are known. Check out my favourite technology writer, Dave Barry’s web site for everything you ever wanted to know about these little symbols.

One of the Arts Hub staff, who corresponds by email every day with people in the United Kingdom, commented to me recently that she’s stopped trying to be funny in her emails – because they weren’t getting the jokes! The English interpret written humour in a different way to us, and we in turn interpret it in another way to Americans, and so on.

When deliberately or maliciously conceived, email can cause great harm. Like the Scottish law firm, the target of an email hoax which saw thousands of emails, purportedly from one of the partners, threatening all manner of devious tactics on behalf of a client.

Or the very widely publicised case of, supposedly real person, Claire Swire, whose private exploits with her boyfriend reverberated around the Net in 2000. Without wanting to explore the intimate details, and taking the story at face value, an email, apparently from Claire, was forwarded by her boyfriend to a few workmates, detailing an encounter the previous evening. It quickly ‘escaped’ and went into extremely wide circulation. If the people were real, it was very damaging. If it was a hoax, it was a remarkable example of the power of email. Make your own mind up.

It’s even rumoured George Bush Jnr sent emails to a number of close friends just after his election as President, saying he wouldn’t be able to email them again, because of the security implications.

An article in England’s Guardian newspaper a while back caught my eye, quoting research (by Microsoft’s Hotmail service), that "email is promoting rampant illiteracy". The article’s author goes on to say "Netiquette is a touchy business. Not least of all because no one can agree on what it is." Nicely put. And that’s rather the beauty of it, and the danger as well.

Sometimes the danger is avoidable, because it becomes plainly obvious what is silly. Ever wondered about those ‘disclaimers’ you see at the bottom of some, particularly professionals, emails? Try this one for size.

Sometimes it’s just plain common sense. For example, the next person who sends me, along with 100 other people, an email with all of our email addresses in the ‘To:’ field gets a big fat raspberry. It’s a breach of my privacy, chews up bandwidth, takes up space on my email screen, and is bad manners. For those of you out there who haven’t cottoned on, use the ‘BCC’ field instead – it stands for ‘Blind Carbon Copy’, and means what it says. Any recipients’ addresses in the BCC field won’t be revealed to the other recipients.

I did want to bring this article’s arc across to the Arts, but that will have to wait until another day, because we need to explore, amongst other things, the earliest forms of email art – ASCII pictures. (I’ll give the first reader a free Arts Hub or Screen Hub membership, or a 12 month extension on their existing one, if they can send me an example of ASCII art they created themselves – email it to david@artshub.com.au).

However, I will bring the article to a close by returning to my opening theme, new technology. Over the past thirty years there’s been surprisingly few innovations in email. Sure, lots more people have an email address, and some uses and tools have entered the lexicon – Hotmail for one, instant messaging another (‘I’ll message you later’).

The biggest advance, in terms of email as we know it, has been HTML email – moving from sending simple text messages, to ones with images, fonts and colours. Instant Messaging is, really, just another form of email.

Where’s the next leap forward in our communication? That was the question I thought I answered with the last Click to Start, and its description of the new ‘3G’ mobile phone video and communication networks. I hinted in that article that not all was well with 3G – and I’m trying not to get too depressed about the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald which describes in agonising detail the birthing pangs.

My prediction of the ‘new technology’ is being sunk by poor equipment and bad business. That’s what sparked my revelation for the day. The first email was sent by a computer engineer who was ‘tinkering around’ with a new piece of software. He didn’t even realise what he had created, and his name is almost unknown. Thirty years later, there’s no tinkering around with new technology, it’s launched as a fait acompli amidst multi-million dollar public relations and marketing campaigns.

And that’s where I can’t help but feel we’re going wrong.

‘Click to Start’ is a column covering arts and technology issues, appearing on artshub.com.au and screenhub.com.au.