Mail Chauvinism: The Magicians, the Snark and the Camel
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.)
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.
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.”
“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
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
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?