E-mail is like a gateway drug

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:42 pm

    In the early 1980’s, Woody Allen wrote a humorous story with a novel take on H.G. Wells’ "War of the Worlds." In that version, our planet is invaded by a race of creatures far more advanced than our own. Specifically, they are ahead of us by 15 minutes. This means "they are never late for meetings." That advantage gives them a tremendous edge, and they ultimately enslave us.

    If you’re like me, you possess at least one device that promises to similarly telescope time – for instance, to attend meetings without ever arriving, through a cell phone and a conference call. It’s a great trick when you’re faced with a traffic jam or a delayed flight. But life is never tidy. In the real world, we may find ourselves enslaved not by extraterrestrials, but by the very gizmos intended to free us.

    Maybe you don’t think you’re a servant to your cell phone, your portable digital assistance (PDA) or your notebook computer. I’m with you there. But many people do feel that way, and I have trouble dismissing many of their observations.

    Have you wondered why the Blackberry is so addictive? What is the mysterious source of its power over otherwise rational people? That’s a topic I’ll explore more deeply next time, but for now, let’s start with the basics, and trace this addiction back to its roots. Just as crack crystals are nothing more than a more potent delivery system for cocaine, the Blackberry is, at its root, nothing more than a potent form of e-mail – the internet’s first "killer application," or "killer app" for short. E-mail earned this distinction by revolutionizing how work gets done in a way that is older than you might think. Much older.

    Cross-country railroads in the 1800’s united this country in many ways. There was the transportation of goods and people, but also the spread of information. This information traveled through the telegraph lines that followed rails as they spanned our country. These lines made possible the telegram.

    In the train’s heyday, the telegram was the only trusted electronic way to do business. But by the late 1800’s, the telephone was causing a stir. It originally was seen exclusively as a carrier for news and music, not for conducting business. Why? Phones lack documentation.

    Executives in the telegraph industry couldn’t imagine that a device with no written record of the communication could be a threat to their business. In fact, legend has it that William Orton, the president of Western Union at the time, was offered a chance to buy Alexander Bell’s phone patent for $100,000. The story goes that he replied, "What use could this company make of an electric toy?"

    You may laugh at his folly, but Mr. Orton had a good a point. It took more than a century, but e-mail finally arrived to solve the documentation problem. E-mail has the immediacy of a phone, but also is a written communication. It also provides a way to store and sort conversations, and thus conduct business on your terms, not necessarily the sender’s.

    That’s what I mean by telescoping time. E-ail does this well. The Blackberry and other smart phones up the ante by adding mobility to the mix. It puts this "killer app" in our pocket or purse. Isn’t that great? I invite your comments.

    Jeff Larche is vice president of interactive services at Nelson Schmidt Inc. (www.n-s.com), a full-service marketing communications agency based in Milwaukee. Larche writes his own marketing technology blog at www.DigitalSolid.com.


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