Behold the Digital Dark Ages

“Thereafter, the darkness closes in.”

– Winston Churchill, describing the end of Roman civilization in Britain.

Ladies and gentlemen: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I do believe that the Digital Dark Ages are upon us.

How ironic that the most ubiquitous of information technologies, ubiquity once being seen as a mark of a really successful system or product, has brought this ruin to our door.

Now that I’ve strained my thesaurus and your patience, here’s my thinking: this Digital Dark Age is all the fault of e-mail.

No, it’s not because of the collapse of the technology-heavy NASDAQ, or the death of dumb dot-com ideas, or the recognition that technology geeks are really, after all, just geeks. It’s e-mail, and the dawning awareness that the abuse of what was once a really useful tool is leading us to a technology backlash.

E-mail is evil. There, I’ve said it.

And don’t tell me that “Guns/email don’t/doesn’t kill/irritate people – people kill/irritate people”. That’s almost as dumb a defense of weaponry as it is of electronic communications.

Once-really-useful-and-now-evil-technology exhibit one: Take a good long look at what’s happened to the technology that’s become so prevalent that we take it for granted. Everybody’s got it for heavens sake, even your grandmother.

And worse yet, e-mail is destroying productivity. That was recently confirmed by researchers who know about this stuff – a Canadian PhD quoted in the newspapers recently declared that the time we collectively spend wading through and answering the stuff has now outweighed its usefulness. No kidding.

We really should have seen this coming – beyond the immediacy of a technology that has allowed for/encouraged horrific spelling and bad grammar, little time for sober reflection in response to perceived slights (Did I really mean to refer to my boss as a pinhead in that Outlook message?), and the burgeoning use of cloyingly cute graphics and emoticons, this great technology leap forward has allowed a whole breed of miscreants the ability to irritate thousands of us at one time.

Have you logged on to your Hotmail account lately? Mine has become almost entirely dysfunctional. Even with just about every filter there is turned on (C’mon Microsoft – I want a filtering option that says “Only allow email in from individuals who are not complete reprobates”), I still get a messages from every crank with an agenda – whether I’m losing my hair, satisfying women, or in debt up to my eyeballs is nobody’s damn business, least of all some anonymous spamming miscreant with access to a server.

The problem with e-mail is that it’s become so widespread that every dimwit with a scam uses it to get in your face. All we need is for these idiots to get their mitts on Instant Messenger, or something like it.

Unfortunately, someone must be buying these products and services, or the spammers would stop, wouldn’t they? By the way, if you’re one of the misguided individuals who do business with these e-mail cretins, then I thank you on behalf of the 99 per cent of the world who wouldn’t deal with these flakes if the world depended on it. There’s a special place in purgatory reserved for you, courtesy of the rest of us.

So what have we learned here? I’m thinking that the lesson is as follows: don’t equate the widespread use of a technology with its success.

Like they say, just because we can do something with technology doesn’t necessarily mean that we should – flavoured vodka, nuclear weapons and spam – all possible, all to be avoided at all costs.

For those of us who believe that the widespread use of whatever technology or system we build is a sure sign of success, e-mail is a cautionary tale.

One last note: sending me your thoughts/ideas about this column by e-mail is a perfectly legitimate use of the technology – after all, there’s an exception to every rule.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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