Mail Chauvinism

Mail Chauvinism: The Magicians, the Snark and the Camel

Ted Nelson


may not look it, but much of the action in computers has already ended.

In the next decade they’ll simply stamp out machines like those we

already know although with new interconnections, at lower and lower

prices with, we hope, better and better software.

But the real

action now is in Networks, Protocols, Standards, Standards, Encryption

and Databases; and at least one war of shadows in Washington may

determine our freedoms as users and citizens. And you may have already

won! But eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, so read carefully.

The Snark

In Lewis Carroll’s epic poem, The Hunting of the Snark,

a party of very dissimilar Victorian gentlemen all go off to catch

something called the Snark. The real catch, however, is that though all

think they are after the same thing, each has an utterly different

preconception of what a “Snark” must be, an image conjured up from each

man’s background and preconceptions.

This allegory will be found

suggestive in many branches of the computer field. At the Electronic

Mail and Message Conference, its relevance was particularly striking.


Electronic Mail and Message Conference (hereafter M&M) was held in

Washington on December 11 and 12, 1980 — the waning days of the Carter

administration. Sponsored by numerous federal agencies and committees

of Congress, and by AFIPS, the computer society of all computer

societies, it took place in a huge oak-panelled room in the Sam Rayburn

Office Building. The room was called, by a sign on the door, “Committee

on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.”

The conference began in an

atmosphere of excitement and would down from there. When it began, at

8:00 a.m. Thursday, the room was tense and crowded, packed with

hundreds of people, and the rows of officials’ chairs that stared down

at us were mostly full. But the next morning only half as many came,

and only a few were left at the close.

But the beginning started

in a crackling atmosphere. Middle-aged executives looked quizzical,

elegantly-dressed young lawyers grinned smugly, nervous reporters

looked cowed. (“What do Electronic Mail and Message System have to do

with news? ” pleaded their eyes.) Almost everybody was well-dressed and

had short hair. Many or most of the technical speakers were bearded,

but few of the audience.

There were some exhibits downstairs of

on-line systems (unfortunately not including Arpanet, which was often

mentioned). Tasteless lunches were served by listless waiters, though a

marvelous open-bar buffet miraculously appeared after the first day.


the conference was a rapid-fire succession of speakers, tightly paced

from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for two days — a note-taker’s nightmare.

In the ensuing months I believe I have been able to figure out the

major themes and issues, even though the speakers were randomly

sequenced and spoke in different tongues.

Rather than tell about

the speakers in the order they spoke, requiring you to untangle many

separate threads, I will describe as coherent sequences various stories

that actually came through to us piecemeal and in random order. In this

article I will try to present the new things I learned and the

principal issues, as expressed by some of the strong personalities


Several different school of “electronic mail” were

present at the M&M Conference, though not all were spoken for from

the platform.

Two main views were heard, though there are several

more. One was the idea that electronic mail is in some sense a simple

replacement of paper mail, which the Post Office speakers seemed to

think. The other view sees “electronic mail” as just one fact of the

coming world of transmissive computing in which a lucky few already


The speakers can be divided into several groups.

Outstanding were the three I call “the magicians,” whose presentations

of a computer tomorrow went far beyond electronic messages, though

electronic messages formed an integral part of their presentations.

Another group, “the packeters,” explained the various conceptual levels

of packet communications and packet networks — the highways, and rules

of the road, for this tomorrow. Another group spoke of dividing the

electronic spectrum and when you should buy satellites; regretfully, I

must omit discussing them.

Then came representatives and

spokesmen for the U.S. Postal Service, essentially explaining why they

felt a need and a right to control electronic mail as they saw it.


finally, numerous “regulators” — government lawyers and administrators

— told us about regulating the spectrum (which I must skip) and

regulating private services and the post office (which must be covered).


surprising political issue surfaced at the conference: the role

demanded by the U.S. Postal Service in a new world they claim to

understand but may not. What the Postal Service wants to do might

narrow and restrict what you can do in the future with your computer.

At present there is a compromise, but these political issues may

resurface at any time.

The lines appear to be tightly drawn. On

the second afternoon a lady in the audience told me she was the only

remaining attendee from the Postal Service — the other three had left.

Representative Rose


a way the first luncheon speaker and his enthusiasm perfectly embodied

the ideas and controversy of the conference. This was Representative

Charles Rose (D., N.C. [that’s Democrat, North Carolina for our

international friends — Joey] , who wore a striking plaid jacket. He

heads the Policy Group on Information and Computers of the Committee on

House Administration of the House of representatives, and is chairman

of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Dairy and Poultry.


computer enthusiast, Rep. Rose was introduced as having a “split screen

bulletin board.” Congress, he told us, has budgeted for an

“informational terminal” for every member of Congress. The two approved

brands are Hazeltine and TI. A portable is given out only if the member

signs a paper “agreeing to be trained in its use.” Freshmen

congresspersons have found this very appealing. Rep. Rose told us that

at the next Congressional seating, the House would get a full view of

electronic mail — now that “Old Stonehead,” whose name I did not

catch, was retiring from some post or another.

Many letters pass

between congressmen, he told us, particularly “Dear Colleague” letters

about their individual concerns., that go out to all fellow members. A

representative reads the ones from certain people and not others, he

explained, and he would like to be able to automate this — including

the screening out of the unwanted material. He is also interested in

forms of teleconferencing for members; he would like to “create an

electronic place where we can meet as friends in private.”

But he

was concerned for the use of these new media back in the districts. “I

want Granny at home, with her video text to be able to use this too.”

And he would like to see public-access write-your-congressman terminals.


Rep. Rose spoke on what would be the political issue of the conference.

“The U.S. Congressman has many friends,” he intoned, “and one of these

if the U.S. Postal Service.” And so, he explained simply, he wants

Electronic Mail to be beneficial to the Post Office. We will return to

this point later.

The Wizards

During the opening remarks,

Bob Taylor sat and listened like a college president: his gaze one of

Olympian calm and warmth; musing, sympathetic, but impassive. He looks

still in his thirties, but can’t be; since he was head of Arpa/Ipt over

a decade ago [remember, this event took place in December 1980 — Joey]


Taylor is the manager of the Computer Science Laboratory of

Xerox PARC. The people there do the most powerful and exciting things

in the whole computer community, and he is their shepherd. It is rather

like a shepherd fondly inspecting a bleating flock that he addresses us.


takes a poll of the group. Half the audience had used “electronic nets”

(whatever they mean by that); but only a third had written a program.

(This suggests that half scarcely knew what a computer was.)


nevertheless. Taylor explains that one of the special features of

electronic messages is that they are read at the receiver’s convenience

, waiting somewhere till he is ready. And that since they are really

brought to us by and through computers, message systems are

“software-intensive”, requiring programming development on a grand


He rolls the videotape. On screen we see Taylor at his

Alto, the famous PARC hot minicomputer with the finely detailed screen.

We see the screen divided into many fields, which part like the REd Sea

as Taylor on the screen points first at one thing, then another. A

prompt tells him that messages are waiting; he reads them, replies,

acts, discards, causing various rearrangements of the screen with

offhand magical passes of the hand.

One note we see him read on

the screen causes him to change a schedule; another he tells,

effectively, “Go file yourself.” One note he sends electronically to

several other people, selecting them by flicking their names from a

list that appears.

Taylor explains this as he goes. “My message system is more than a message system,” he understates.


of text rearrange themselves on the screen, compress, expand. Sometimes

the moving cursor is a box, sometimes an hourglass, sometimes something

else. So quickly and effortlessly do the messages come and go on

Taylor’s Alto screen, you hardly realize that the work you see him

doing would be a storm of activity if he were shuffling actual paper.


audience is studious but impassive. I get the feeling that only a few

understand what they see — those who already know about it — but the

rest of the audience doesn’t know what it’s about and can’t tell.)


messages we see the videotaped Taylor working with are not mere

telegrams that go from one person to another and stop. Rather, he may

search and scan through them, alter them, pass them on, or reply, with

a flick of the wrist; they roll and fly before his face like the cards

of a riverboat gambler. Some of the involve graphics and color and

audio. “If you think about these as systems for moving strings of

characters, you miss the point of their power,” he says.


phrase “Office of the Future” has been bruited about a great deal in

Xerox publicity, as in “we’re developing the Office of the Future at

Xerox PARC,” but of course who can agree on what that means? Yet here

it is in front of us: the paper trivia-flows of the office are calmly

controlled on the Flatland of the screen. I don’t know what the

paperwallopers at Xerox Corporate think of the Office of the Future may

be, but I’ll gladly settle for this one.

What we see Taylor

working with is still in fact a world of documents, separate,

potentially printable on paper. But here is the kicker. Less than 1% of

the electronic messages at PARC, he tells us, are printed out.


Two is Michael Dertouzous of MIT. he heads what used to be called

Project MAC, where time-sharing began; now it has 300 employees and a

more boring name, the Laboratory for Computer Science. He is tall,

dashing, accented, ought to wear a cape.

As computer prices go

down 30% a year, he says, hidden computers will proliferate everywhere,

just like the “hidden motors” that we know as hair dryers and such.


shows us screen-views of his own personal files: a schedule (which

becomes a history file as it slides through the present), his list of

associates and acquaintances (cross-filed by name and city, so he can

fill his travels with companionship), his checkbook (which

automatically categorizes everything).

And he shows us how

message systems of the future might let us go shopping. Suppose he

wants a certain kind of wallet. His computer now makes inquiries at

various shopping data banks, looking for wallets of the right size and

color, and makes notes on which ones come closest to the desired


Wizard Three gives us a conceptual framework for

thinking about this world. He is J. C. R. Licklider, called Lick by

everybody. Warm and cheery, Lick is a founder of time-sharing, past

director of MAC and Arpa pioneer. (Starting up the computer work at

Arpa, he financed Ian Sutherland’s Sketchpad.) One of the greats.


foresees a world where “all intellectual functions are well supported

by computers.” (Right now, we have “access to gigabits through

punybaud,” but that will change.)

Licklider’s messages and

examples on the screen now involve fill-ins and subroutines and

modeling. He shows how he can program his computer to make dinner

arrangements when he goes to a certain city: if the first person

invited can’t have dinner, his computer scans the list of his other

friends in the same city and issues dinner invitations to them . All

this in a simple conditional language.

But rather than talk about

“computers,” whose actual whereabouts and boundaries become

indeterminate in this sort of a coming world, Lick prefers to talk

about “agents” or “assistants,” things you set up to do things for you.

(Lick also likes to call them Olivers, after Oliver Selfridge, who came

up with the idea around 1966.) Agents will handle “augmented telephone

calls,” stacking the calls and pushing them through automatically.

Agents will pay your bill, checking them against the appropriate

invoices in standard electronic forms. They will sniff out information

a friend may have set out: his birthday, gift preferences and sizes,

party invitations, information he would like from whoever knows it.


will not merely receive messages; they will react to them, sending out

new feelers, and requests to other computers and agents. Messages,

forking and thrusting through a forest of computers and agents, will

inquire, update and reply, often waiting for interactive responses.

Messages will independently link to animated diagrams and status

displays, keeping them current.

Subprograms call each other in

ternally all the time, says Lick; soon they’ll be doing it ex ternally,

sometimes in parallel, sometimes queuing. So the interchange of

“messages” becomes something larger, a crossfire of interacting events.


now you see this messaging is something else. It is not postcards or

telegrams, it is not document handling. In its back-and-forthing it is

more like the telephone than the telegraph. It is a new form of closely

responsive session, a chain-reaction system of intercommunication among

— what? Agents. Places. Databases. Programs, texts, indications,

semaphores. It is a pool-table model, like a gunbattle, like atomic

nuclei near critical mass: the event-shower-interchange session. A

shower of sparks.

The Camel

Across this landscape of

cheery electronic possibilities there came, but not so very long ago,

an interesting intruder: the United States Postal Service.


have heard of camels. You have undoubtedly also heard the expression,

“When the camel gets its nose inside the tent, the rest will follow,”

or some exotic equivalent, intended to convey the idea that the rest of

a camel cannot be far behind its intruding tip, and all of the camel

will soon be within any environment it penetrates.

Now before

this parable can be fully explained, and we can get back to the

conference, it is necessary to fill in some facts and history.


law, the Post Office has monopoly power over delivered things. You

cannot, for instance, open a delivery service between cities except

under certain specific, narrow conditions. (And symbolically, you must

have U.S. stamps on the parcel your service brings.)

This is the

infamous “delivery monopoly.” At least one M&M speaker, Lloyd

Johnson, spoke as though there were a danger that the post office might

attempt to extend this monopoly to all electronic messages . This also

seemed to be the position presented by Jaquish of the Postal Service,

who spoke as if the Postal Service had a natural right that extended

into this new realm.

In 1978 the Post Office proposed to open a

new service, called E-COM (Electronic Computer Originated Mail; the

hyphen is something of a mystery).

Now, the Post Office cannout

just do anything it wants. It must get permission from the Postal Rate

Commission, making formal proposals for new services.

The Post

Office proposed in 1978 to connect very large mail-senders — those

sending thousands of pieces a year — to a centralized computer system.

(This would be Western Union’s facility in Middletown, VA.)


this original proposal, a large variety of inputs would bring messages

to the Western Union computer. Bills and form letters would be

repetitively copied, electronically, with appropriate names, amounts

and other fill-ins,; then these finished telegraphic communiques would

be sent electronically to 25 major “serving offices,” where their

contents would be printed out, stuffed in envelopes and delivered with

the regular mail.

The proposal has several problems. One was

technical ghastliness: tapes being carried across separate computers,

for instance. Another was high cost (30 to 60 cents a letter). Then

came some deeper problems: in selling electronic transmission services,

the Post Office would be competing with several common carriers. This

further threatened a monopoly fight related to the Post Office’s

monopoly prerogative of delivery, threatening (at worst) that whatever

electronic mail might become would only be what the Post Office allowed

it to become. And finally and darkly, archival copies of tapes were to

be kept.

This proposal was brought before Albert Vezza, MIT

Professor and one of the architects of the Arpanet. He proposed a

rather straightforward alternative: no centralized facility, and the

use of common carriers — available electronic nets — between the

serving post offices, where the printing and the stuffing and delivery

would occur.

This was simpler. It did not compete with common carriers, but used them. And it cost about ten times less per piece.


two alternatives — the original one and Vezza’s — were brought before

the Postal Rate Commission, which decides these things. There was a

bitter fight. The PRC’s decision: “implement the Vezza alternative.”

The Post Office fought this decision in the courts, but had to give in.

Finally it was accepted by the Post Office board of governors, but they

then turned around and filed a lawsuit against the Postal rate

Commission to make the new arrangement permanent before it had even

tried — that very arrangement they had just been fighting.


new system will supposedly be implemented in 1982. (As of this writing,

the Post Office has accepted a proposal from RCA, but its contents have

not yet become available.)

Diagram: The U.S. Post Office's proposed ECOM (Electroning Computer-Originated Mail system.

A diagram of ECOM (Electronic Computer-Originated Mail), the email system proposed by the U.S. Post Office.

One leading and mischievous feature

was added to the Vezza alternative in the ECOM system that was finally

approved. This was an input link direct to the serving post offices.

However, since the Postal Service was explicitly forbidden to provide

end-to-end service (“generation three”), information received in this

fashion is to be put on magnetic tape and sent by express mail to

receiving post offices . (It is as though this step were undertaken

explicitly to be inefficient, and cry out for the electronic completion

that is not now allowed. A cynic might say the feature was put there as

a festering inconvenience, crying out for proper electronic

consummation and thus challenging the present compromise.)


was essentially the view of Henry Geller (see “The Regulators”) — that

the Post Office will be continually maneuvering to add electronic

services until it has “the whole thing,” a monopoly of delivery to your

own terminal. With ECOM, ” The camel’s nose is under the tent ,” says


What is anticipated in these early stages, since only

high-volume mailers may play the game, are corporate mass mailings such

as dunning letters, product recalls, bills and special advertising. A

special advantage of ECOM is its ability to put special Text Insert

Messages (TIMs) into COmmon Text (COT), adding all the John Smiths to

supposedly personal messages. It seems this would save considerable

in-house effort along the same lines for major mailers.

The Conference Again

Now here we are at the conference again, and we will hear some spokesmen from the Post Office.


comes the head of R&D for the Post Office, Paul Jaquish. He is

slow-spoken, balding, somewhat angry-seeming; his title is Senior

Assistant Postmaster General, Research and Technology Group of the U.S.

Postal Service.

He comes on as the heavy with a belligerent and defiant manner. Here is what I got down.

“We must control service.”

“We cannot allow our resources to be spirited away.”

And finally:

“We have a legislative mandate and a financial requirement.”


at least it’s up front. But what did it mean? Was he talking only about

delivery on foot? Or is he telling us their electronic must eventually

be the only ones that make messages available to our personal

computers? It certainly sounded to me as though Jaquish said,

essentially: “Whatever this is, it belongs to us.”

When it came

time for questions, I tried to ask the question that was burning on my

mind, but it took too long. I said something like: “The format of this

conference suggests a premature delineation of ‘mail and message’

systems, arbitrarily cutting them away from teleconferencing, data

bases, highly interactive environments, electronic publishing and

archiving. Could you comment?”

Jaquish’s one-syllable answer got a big laugh, and we broke for the first lunch.


next day we heard Vincent Sombrotto, president of the National

Association of Letter Carriers and its 233,000 members. That’s right, a

quarter of a million.

Sombrotto was fiftyish, with white hair and

a ruddy complexion. The former president of the New York branch of the

union, he had a Jimmy Durante Brooklyn accent and just about as much

charm. Everyone seemed to find him unexpectedly likeable.


addressed himself, naturally, to the question of what should be the

role of postal personnel in electronic mail. I got down just three


“It’s da most efficient postal soivice in da woild.”


da wave of da future is electronic transmission of mail, den it only

makes sense to use da most efficient awganization in da woild.”

“If dis seems self-soiving (cheery grin), dat’s exactly what it’s meant to do.”

A Remarkable View


most astonishing presentation was certainly that of Charles Joyce.

Formerly Director of Information Technology and Policy at the Mitre

Corporation, and now consulting to the Post Office. He is a member with

a somewhat smug air and rather remarkable views.

Mr. Joyce had

made a study of the “existing mainstream,” that is, the things the Post

Office delivers now. The question they tried to answer was what kinds

of mail would be directly replaced electronically, or “diverted,”

according to this way of thinking.

The projections appear to hold

approximately constant the number of messages per capita. The figures

we saw foresee a slow drop in conventional mail as “generation two” and

“generation three” get off the ground. And Joyce announces confidently:

“You’re not going to see books and newspapers transmitted in the next

twenty years.”

What makes him think the number of messages will stay the same? “We did not include the stimulation factor,” he said.


this is most interesting: it assumes that each electronic message

replaces a sheet of paper folded in an envelope or some other enclosed

packet of markings on cellulose. And it assumes a very constant

universe. (Projections are often presented for varying sets of

assumptions, none yet know to be true. No such fiddle-faddle here.)

Mr. Joyce’s remarks were later commented on by Einar Stefferud, a consultant attending the conference.


wasn’t considering the nature of the change of behavior. We aren’t

going to mail catalogs anymore, there’ll be query traffic.”


continued, “this rests on the assumption that electronic mail would be

anaologs or marginal equivalents of record traffic, but did not take

into consideration he network transactions of Licklider’s model — if

you believe in networks.”

Only time will tell, of course, but any

observer would be reminded here of the projection made in 1947 that

half a dozen of that day’s computers (each with the about the power of

an Apple) would satisfy the United States for the foreseeable future.


consider the market research of the Haloid corporation, whose

investigators repreatedly reported that the copying machine Haloid was

working on would only sell a few dozen before exhausting all the demand

in the United States. (When the copier was finally introduced, Haloid

changed its name to Xerox.)

The Friday lunch speaker was Lloyd

Johnson, a poised and impressive individual and staff director of the

House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Postal Operations and

Services. He sounded a less enthusiastic note for the Post Office than

had Rep. Rose.

One of Johnson’s first remarks was that everyone

was proceeding from different assumptions, perhaps the best point made

at the conference. He then went on to outline the history of the Post

Office’s maneuverings to institute electronic mail service, based on

the notion that growing use of electronic messaging constituted

“first-class mail diversion,” as though someone were taking away what

rightfully belonged to the Post Office, like the ballpoint pens on


Hair-raising estimates from various sources project

staggering amounts of electronic communication. One commentator

estimated that 220 million people would be sent ten items a day each

averaging 30K bits per item. (Have you a better guess?) Vezza’s earlier

Congressional testimony had foreseen between 230 million and five

billion electronic messages in 1983, which would already be as much as

ten percent of the mail !

Other consultants foresaw twelve and a half billion pieces “diverted” in 1990, twenty-six billion in 2000.


whatever it is, it’s important. And it is not surprising that the

postal workers are agitating for a piece of this action, which Johnson

called “turfmanship,” even though the General Accounting Office has

estimated that “any loss” to the P.O. could be covered by attrition.

HUMPH: A Concluding Editorial Opinion


of the finest minds of our time are trying to build a new world of

interactive communication and instantaneous availability of

information, pictures, ideas, models, worlds.

Meanwhile, the Post

Office has come to assume, in some innocence, that electronic message

services are directly related to, and in competition with, what they

already do — the “same thing” as letters on paper.


“turfmanship,” as Lloyd Johnson called it, is strongly reminiscent of

the typesetting-union problems faced by newspapers in the sixties, when

the typesetters imagined that “new jobs” would be created in electronic

typesetting to which they had a natural right — even though the actual

new jobs involved computer programming, and were being carried out by

vendors elsewhere. What is going to happen is something different .


still exists the faint possibility that the Post Office might actually

force a monopoly of its services in these new areas, based by some

miraculous extension of law on its existing monopoly. The possibility

is slight, because competitors would not stand for it and customers

would not stand for it — besides which, of course, the is the Reagan

administration’s stand against government services in general.


most important, the Postal Rate Commission has in its wisdom given the

Post Office that fraction of electronic communication which can be

stuffed in an envelope.

However, that does not necessarily end

the threat. The warnings of Henry Geller, for instance, centered on the

difficulty of a mixed economy where the Post Office offered electronic

services in competition with private vendors.

I see a different

sort of threat: that the Postal Service might make electronic mail

become what they think it is. And this could cripple us all for the

indefinite future. At a point so early in the development of such

services, it is astonishing that the Postal Service is already

petitioning to make ECOM permanent . What if permanence had been

legislated for the Ford Trimotor, the Eniac computer and the SOAP


But it is in the further services the Post Office might

offer — currently forbidden — that the danger lies. Even if they get

no monopoly, by offering new services they have the power to structure

an industry.

If the Post Office can, with flexibility,

participate with this with as much foresight as those whose vision is

driving it, then their participation will do no harm. But if Post

Office participation means low-grade visions are to be foisted on the

public, simplified and degraded forms of transmission that cripple the

kind of interaction we are trying to create, the maneuverings are to be

viewed with the greatest alarm by those who care about the world of

tomorrow. Oversimplification and inflexibility could greatly reduce the

imagination and power of tomorrow’s evolving services. Let us hope the

Post Office can find the wisdom to expand its understandings, and make

an orderly contribution to the structure of our new life of the future,

rather than a narrow, monopolistic impediment to the world some of us

are trying to create.


In The Hunting of the Snark,

the quarry all were seeking out turned out to be that most horrible of

beasts, the Boojum. If the finest of visions are not shared as widely

and clearly as possible, what Boojum may we not find?

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