Early, Cynical Reactions to Electronic Mail

Pessimists Archive
Timeline
Published in
4 min readMar 8, 2016

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With the passing of Ray Tomlinson, ‘the father of email’, we wanted to look back at some early, cynical reactions to electronic mail in his honor. As with most technologies, cost was an early complaint…

…but it was a strange one for a mode of communication with zero marginal cost. After all, it didn’t require people, paper, stamps, post offices, vehicles or the associated costs.

Gainesville Sun, 1984

Early email did require a modem, software and a paid subscription to an email service — but delivery was instant, regardless of distance, and you could send an infinite number of emails.

There were also doubts that email was actually going to be of any practical value.

A 1985 article titled ‘When Technology Outpaces Needs’ laments the shortcomings of early email systems and goes so far as to completely dismiss their usefulness.

‘Technology Outpaces Needs’, The New York Times (1985)

The piece even writes off the value of future email systems that might address these shortcomings, suggesting even then it would still be “no more convenient than the existing alternatives.”

‘Technology Outpaces Needs’, The New York Times (1985)

After setting up an electronic mail system in the 80s and then shutting it down a few years later, the United States Postal Service tried to remind everyone how much the business world still loved ‘snail mail’ by commissioning a survey for business executives.

The survey contained vague questions about traditional mail that centered around how important it was for business and whether executives trusted it, all questions that were guaranteed to elicit positive responses.

Lodi News-Sentinel (1996)

Workplace email was explored in the 1996 article ‘@witsend: Coping With Email Overload’, in which the accompanying illustration gave a clue as to the tone.

The piece explored communication overload and the negative effects email was supposedly having on workplace cohesion.

@witsend: Coping With E-Mail Overload’ — The New York Times (1996)

The notion of email ‘overload’ is still with us today. There is some truth to it, but it was a fairly cynical response to the dawn of a free, global and instant communication system.

The New York Times (1926)

The fact is, every time technology makes information more abundant, there are cries that it is too abundant. It happened with the Gutenberg press, paperback books, radio and television, too.

When free email services gave everyone an address and inbox, spam became the main complaint, even though — unlike physical junk mail — it could be detected, filtered out and deleted.

Ocala Star-Banner (1999)

The abstract, intimidating and complicated nature of how email worked led to headlines like this:

Lakeland Ledger (1997)

According to the article “The amount of mail disappearing into the cyberspace void in unacceptably high” and “The postal service does a far better job [of reliably delivering mail].”

The pseudonymous nature of email was an early concern as well. Of course, as with all technologies, bad people used email to do bad things. Fast forward to 2016 and the same issues are arising, this time with apps like YikYak. It makes sense to conclude that technology isn’t the problem — people are.

Lawrence Journal-World (1993)

Email also facilitated romantic connections, which worried many. Here a sociologist and psychologist express fear for those seeking love online:

Lawrence Journal-World (1993)

Many concerns about new communication methods today echo those that accompanied the rise of email. There are complaints about abusive behavior on Twitter and YikYak, deleterious effects on workplace productivity thanks to Slack, and the end of romance because of Tinder. Email is now so old and familiar it no longer has these concerns projected onto it.

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