From earthquakes to e-mail

After much pain and anguish we’ve discovered how to build structures to withstand most, but not all, earthquakes. The key to this significant achievement is an idea we’ve labelled “base isolation.” The concept is simple enough, we don’t firmly attach the building to the ground, instead we build it upon a base of giant metal springs or huge plugs of rubber.

The result? When the earth moves beneath our feet, not all of the terrifying and horrific movement is transferred to the building. We notice the shaking, but we don’t come tumbling down like a house of cards. By creating a loose linkage between the building and the earth, we literally distance ourselves from the Earth’s activities.

That same principle of “base isolation” is useful in many endeavours. In politics? Don’t link yourself so tightly with another country’s policies that you’re dragged into decisions you’d not have made on your own. In technology? Don’t link yourself so deeply into a vendor’s products to the point where you can’t extricate yourself when they fail in some unexpected manner.

Someone should have told Rogers about “base isolation” when they were setting up their original e-mail system. It would have saved them, and their more than 400,000 subscribers a lot of pain and anguish during their recent shift in e-mail addresses.

If they’d only spent $75/annum on a URL, through which to funnel all their customer’s e-mail instead of using the address, they’d have themselves saved several million dollars and their 400,000 plus users, several hundred years of combined effort. Some decisions, or perhaps lack of decision making, can cost disproportionate amounts of effort.

By using the as part of the Rogers e-mail address, they effectively gave @home total ownership and more importantly, total control over the entire subscriber base.

Nor is this a case of perfect 20/20 hindsight. Whenever we choose to engage with someone, whether as an individual or as an organization, we must at least contemplate a “dis-engagement” strategy. At the very least, contracts come up for renewal – the more we’ve become dependent upon that relationship, the weaker our bargaining power. There are serious lessons here for things like outsourcing contracts, or the concept of “renting software.”

I am a long-suffering Internet Rogers Cable customer, but right from the start I did one thing right – I used an e-mail alias. A long, long time ago, at the dawn of my Internet usage, I decided aliases were the only rational choice. When Rogers announced that the old addresses were being phased out, I did not have to e-mail several thousand people to update their address books, I merely directed my alias to the new address.

I didn’t choose to use an alias because of any deep insight, in fact I was a slow learner. It took several of my ISPs going out of business in a six-month period and having to repeatedly inform all my contacts that my Internet identity had changed yet again, before I clued in on the need for a permanent e-mail address independent from my ISP.

The lesson here? Our e-mail addresses are something we should control as we would our real world address. Changing your address should always be your choice and no one else’s. The only way to achieve that goal, is to own the tail end of your address. Yes it’s an added cost to your Internet usage, but consider the alternative.

Peter de Jager (alias “Big Bear”) is a well known keynote speaker/consultant on issues relating to change and the management of technology. You can contact him at