Tuesday, July 5

channels

I was standing at the airport bus stop the other day, and (as one does nowadays) killing time on my phone, when it occurred to me that I really miss e-mail.

I had just gotten off a plane and was doing that bored compulsive nerd thing where you cycle between inputs in case anything has happened in the whole three or four hours you were out of touch with the net. Check a feedreader, check Twitter, check GitHub, check the sites where you've been arguing with people, check mail, and so on. In a couple of these places, I had messages I cared about from real people. In e-mail, I had a mass mailing asking me for money, output from a cron job on a machine I've been ignoring for at least a year, and a notice from Twitter that a user with an avatar of a generic hot girl and an obviously machine-generated name had started following me.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but my personal mail has been reduced from a medium of direct communication to a mechanized ghost town of a meta-channel, an authentication and notification backplane for web applications and spambots.

I suppose I first noticed this around the time I decamped from Facebook. It's part of the reason I went sort of evangelical about my dislike of walled-garden social networks. And Facebook alone has driven a lot of it — where people used to write mail, now they make wall posts, or send direct messages using its clunky, halfassed internal re-implementation of e-mail. But there's plenty else at work, I'm sure. On the temporal-immediacy and granularity scales, revealed preferences seem to shift more and more towards media at the realtime and fine-grained end of the spectra. (Not to mention context-dependent and disposable. Arguably the entire Internet is becoming IRC ca. 1996.)

All of this is what it is. Privatization and the proprietary entrapment of communication on the web — the movement away from open protocols and distributed weak-authority systems — should worry us much as ever. But if people want immediacy and social context for what they're saying to one another, well, they've got their reasons. Besides which, ask any sysadmin of your acquaintance and there's a fair chance you'll hear at profane, embittered length what a sloppy, vulnerable, gnarled mess of a system Internet mail is in fact.

Still, I think something good and necessary to a literate culture is in eclipse right now. It's not the formal trappings of e-mail, as much affection as I feel for some of them. It's the basic act of correspondence — the essential elements of a mode that can thrive as much in a monochrome terminal window as written in ballpoint on paper.