Clay Shirky warns that,
with the spam-death of email as we know it, we may have seen the
high-water mark of openness online. Don’t ignore Clayssandra —
he’s onto something.
Like Clay, I love email. Use it incessantly. Can’t imagine
how I ever lived without it. Can’t see myself ever using older
(telephone) or newer (IM, collaboration software, RSS feeds) mechanisms
with the same enthusiasm.
On the other hand, like Ray Ozzie, I’ve seen for some time that email
won’t scale the way it increasingly needs to. I wrote an issue of Release 1.0
two years ago describing collaborative bottom-up knowledge management
solutions (including Groove) optimized for some of the business
functions that email handles badly. I wrote an article for Slate a year ago saying that spam and worms would kill off the open email we know and love. And I realized in August that the SoBig worm might be the beginning of the end.
And yet, and yet. I can’t bring myself to be a pessimist. When my friends like Clay and Larry Lessig
point out how the glorious openness of the Net is being snuffed out, I
can’t find any holes in their arguments. I reject the congenital
optimism of people like George Gilder who think technology will solve
all our problems (as long as government gets out of the way). I
just keep coming back to the pragmatic conviction that we will muddle
through. The question is how much time and money and effort will
be wasted along the way.
What gives me cause for hope, if you can call it that, is the power of
pervasive internetworking. GM and Goodyear can’t buy up and tear
out the Net like they did the LA trolley system, because the Net is
everywhere. The content industries can delay the arrival of
digital distribution and make a mess of things with poorly-considered
digital rights management schemes… but not forever. Verisign
can break the domain name system for its financial gain… but it won’t
end universal IP connectivity, and that will ultimately make it
irrelevant if it abuses its position of trust.
Email will lose its glorious universality. We won’t expect that
anyone can send anything to anyone else. But email won’t
necessarily go the way of Usenet. Usenet was a subculture; email
isn’t. For all the spammers and free-riders, there are more
people and organizations that, often for their own selfish reasons,
want email to survive.
Have we passed the high-water mark of openness? Probably. But the
graph needn’t look like a Bell Curve. We can still have an
Internet that is the most open, dynamic communications medium in the
world. And if we fight for them, there are other opportunities
for true openness on the horizon, like unlicensed wireless. What’s other choice do we have?