by Ted Goertzel
Published in: Clio's Psyche (New York), September-October 1999.
Electronic mail is a wonderful convenience. Messages usually arrive at their destination within 10 or 15 minutes, at no cost. The recipient can read them and reply at his or her convenience. For people who are online regularly, this permits several exchanges during a day. You avoid "telephone tag" or delays in postal mail, or "snail mail" as we Internet users call it. It is particularly handy for communication with people in other parts of the world. When my son was in Perth, we corresponded regularly by email, especially when we were co-authoring Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics. I also corresponded regularly with numerous people in Brazil while writing Fernando Henrique [Cardoso: Reinventing Democracy in Brazil. Sometimes when I was puzzled by a Portuguese expression or reference, I could get a clarification from Brasilia in half an hour. In corresponding with my son, responses usually came the next day because the time in Perth is the exact opposite of New Jersey. Now that my son is in New Jersey, however, we still communicate mostly by email, much less frequently on the telephone or in person.
Technically, email has improved to the point that it is easy to send computer files in Word, WordPerfect, Excel or any other software one may use. This means that people who are working together on a project, such as the book my son and I are writing on Webmind: Building True Intelligence on the Internet, can send drafts back and forth at will. I keep the whole manuscript to the Webmind book in one WordPerfect file, and can ship it off to Ben in a couple of minutes of uploading time. We both use Netscape Navigator Mailbox, but other email programs are similar.
Sometimes the speed and ease of email can be an advantage. One tends to ship off epistles on the spur of the moment, without taking time for reflection. One can get overly involved in someone else's personal problems, as I did with my son when he was in Australia and New Zealand, without being able to get together to discuss things face-to-face. Email communication lacks the emotional resonance of a telephone conversation, let alone a personal meeting. The symbols :-) for happiness :-( for sadness or ;-) for a wink are a poor substitute for spoken communication.
On email, you can't always be sure that your correspondent really is
who he or she claims to be. This fact is explicit in anonymous discussion
groups, where people don't use their real names. But impersonation can
also be a problem. For example, I was quite surprised to find the following
message in my email box last March:
Subject: The Future of Marxism
Date: Tue, 02 Mar 1999 13:17:20 PST
From: "Ted Goertzel" <email@example.com>
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
Post-Marxism sounds a lot like nihilism to me my esteemed fellows. It
seems some of us will pound our fists into the dust, while the century
passes us by. It is not so much that the populace does not understand
Marxism, as they understand it and reject it.
Yet sometimes I have to ask myself, do I enjoy being an object of
ridicule? Increasingly being less respected by my fellow humans? And
the answer is????
Yet whether we are talking about Feminist Marxism, or Cultural Marxism,
(or the Paradigm Dialog), it seems that others have read our works and
reject them utterly.
What then is our future? And is the answer contained perhaps in a bottle
Get Your Private, Free Email at http://hotmail.com
The letter was mailed to a number of people prominent in the Progressive Sociology Network, an email mailing list that links Marxist sociologists around the world. A few years ago, I had been active on PSN, and had often provoked angry responses when I shared my disillusionment with Marxism. When I try my name on some search engines, those posts to PSN still come up, along with replies accusing me of all kinds of foolishness. But it had been several years since I had been active on PSN.
The letter read like something I might have written, but I did not. Several of the recipients, friends of mine from a years ago, thought I must be going through a midlife crisis. I quickly emailed them to explain that the letter was not from me, and I contacted the security people at Hotmail who removed firstname.lastname@example.org from the service. As it happens, I have a Hotmail account which is email@example.com. If I had taken the time to pursue it, I might have tracked down the sender, Hotmail could easily find out which Internet Service Provider had sent the original message. But it didn't seem worth the trouble to pursue it.
What, one might ask, was the sender's motive in sending a message over my signature? In this case, I suspect he or she was considering "coming out" as an apostate from Marxism and wanted to test the waters anonymously. Sending the message to me assured that the deception would be discovered, which increased the likelihood it would attract attention. So far as I know, the sender has sent no more messages impersonating me. However, I mentioned the incident to my class on The Internet and Society, and a few days later the following message appeared on the class bulletin board from: "ted_goertzel"
We will not have class on March 12, I was mistaken in the earlier
post. Please follow the web page topics for that day and do the required
reading. We will resume classes after spring break. I also want to remind
everyone that there is no class on Good Friday, but again, there is a web
page for that day.
Again, a message that I might have sent, but I did not. The same message was sent to our class mailing list, which would have reached many more students more quickly. But I have the mailing list proctored so nothing can go out until I approve it with a password. I sent a corrective post to the bulletin board, so no harm was done. Again, I decided not to bother trying to track the perpetrator down, although Rutgers rules explicitly prohibit "impersonation." Impersonation is easy to do, anyone can open an account on Hotmail or another free email provider in any name they choose. There are few protections, although the letter to my class mailing list came with a warning from the ISP that it might be false.
Anonymity is a very important part of Internet discussions, although not all groups allow it. I could have set up a class bulletin board which required people to use their real names, but I decided to allow anonymous communication because it allows people to express feelings and ideas they might be too inhibited to express in face-to-face discussions, let alone in print over their signature. The bulletin board is a useful outlet for a large lecture class (250 students). It is disproportionately used by the discontented, including some students who seem emotionally unbalanced, but there is little harm in giving them an outlet. When they attack me unfairly, other students generally come to my defense. Using a mailing list, which automatically send email to everyone's box, for this purpose is not such a good idea, however. People quickly complain about getting so much mail from a few malcontents.
"Flame wars" are a recurrent feature of Internet discussions because of the ease and speed of Internet communication. They occur both in anonymous groups and groups where people are identified. The Internet attracts many people who otherwise have a hard time finding an audience for their preoccupations. In the case of the Marxist Sociologists, it provides support to people who otherwise find it difficult to get anyone to take their ideology seriously. I am sure this is true for other eccentric groups as well, and it may increase the tendency for people with unusual beliefs to isolate themselves from society at large.
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