Email Crimes and Misdemeanors

In 1973, Len Kleinrock may have committed the first cybercrime. He’d just returned to UCLA from a conference on computing and communications at Sussex University, and he found that he’d left his razor behind. So he went to his computer terminal and typed, “where’s Roberts?” A few minutes later a Teletype number for his colleague, Larry Roberts, appeared on Kleinrock’s screen. Using the Teletype connection and TALK, a program that allowed them to converse by typing on one half of the screen while reading from the other, he asked Roberts to send him his razor.

This digital connection may sound mundane, but it was sent via one of only a handful of ARPANET connections that existed at the time; in fact, this particular connection had been specifically set up for the conference. Packets traveled over a satellite link from Virginia to a station in Cornwall. From there, a dedicated phone line had been installed to connect with the University of London, then to Brighton, where people were being given an opportunity to use ARPANET.

While there weren’t any formal rules restricting the use of ARPANET by those with authorized access (and as one of its leading developers, Kleinrock certainly qualified), the network had been built for “official use only” to link up scientific minds—and expensive ARPA computers—for research purposes. Using it for razor retrieval was akin to using an aircraft carrier for a similar triviality.

Yet while ARPANET was never intended for email, research sharing is an essentially collaborative process and communication a necessary part of collaboration. Kleinrock was not alone in tapping the system for chat; many of his colleagues tagged personal messages onto professional exchanges and (to understate the case) over the next couple of decades email really caught on.

Part of its appeal from the start was its ability to link team members who didn’t have the luxury of sharing a space. In some cases, it was teams comprised of individuals throughout a university campus; in others, it was researchers located across the globe. There is also a characteristic that computer folk and academics share: a tendency to keep odd hours. Email helped with this. Much of early email was limited to internal-only mailbox systems that let team members leave messages for others to pick up and respond to whenever they happened to come in and boot up.

Between team playing and time shifting, what’s not to love? A whole lot.

As any of you who’ve called me already know, my voicemail message suggests emailing me for the fastest response. It is true: My email is always running, wherever I’m working, and I don’t have a cell phone (which wouldn’t get reception at my house anyway). I like the fact that email messages track me down wherever I may be. I also like the time shifting capacity, as I work with writers all over the world. Tech writers, mind you—a hybrid of two groups notorious for keeping odd hours.

I also value the email thread—how it allows me to track the evolution of an idea or wade back through to the origins of a problem. Filing an important email gives me backside-coverage assurance.

Yet I, like absolutely everyone, am deluged with email (even excluding pharma and phishing spam) and struggle to keep up. It offers an impersonal ease with which to reach out to me in quasi-professional ways like press releases that have nothing to do with my publication or “What do you think about this or that?” kind of messages. “Um, yes, I’ve heard of that company but don’t have time to tell you about my relationship with them; yes, we cover enterprise search but I’m in no position to consult on your choice of tools,” and so on.

When I occasion to pick up my phone to PR spammers, I always question why on earth they would call the editor of a magazine to ask if I received an email. I sincerely believe that wasting others’ time with irrelevant “information” and “communication” is moronic. We may actually be just a bit dumber when we finish reading a pitch about yet another leading solution from the No. 1 company in the market that does something the writer of the release doesn’t actually understand.

These are relatively minor infractions, to be sure. Work-related spam isn’t much more egregious than forwarding a joke to everyone in your personal mail file, not taking the time to consider which of your friends might actually find it funny. Yet such actions have pushed me to the point where I routinely delete all forwarded humor except that sent to me by a couple of individuals—who I know always think before they hit Send.