in Computers

My baby just wrote me a letter

In 1477, Margery Brews wrote a letter to her fiancé, John Paston. Her handwriting is very fine and ornate. She wrote the following: “If you love me, as I truly believe you do, you will not leave me… Because even if you did not have half the wealth that you do, and I had to undertake the greatest toil that any woman alive should, I would not forsake you. And if you command me to remain faithful wherever I go, I will indeed do everything in my power to love you and no one else ever. Even if my friends say I am acting wrongly, they will not prevent me from so doing. My heart commands me to love you truly above all earthly things for evermore. And however angry they may be, I trust it shall be better in time to come.”

And this, we think, is the first ever love letter.

When we say “e-mail” today, we’re discussing a very specific type of digital transmission; namely, transmission of an original human readable message from one source to one or more destinations, using the SMTP protocol, which in turn is built on the telnet protocol, which in turn is built on the TCP protocol. But “e-mail” as a technical concept predates its current SMTP implementation.

There are other, parallel forms of e-mail as well. In the mid 1980s, Tom Jennings wrote a BBS system and a protocol document called FidoNet. At the time, BBS systems were still quite popular. They required a dedicated computer that answered calls on a dedicated phone line. In particular, FidoNet required that compatible BBS software obeyed what was called Zone Mail Hour, or ZMH, which was a period during which the BBS was expected to send and receive EchoMail to and from other BBSes, typically by calling them directly. Because this wasn’t always practicable, FidoNet had a basic routing capability that permitted you to route messages to through other nodes to their destination nodes.

The early 1990’s explosion of FidoNet was predicated on the existence of cheaper, faster modems as well as cheaper, faster personal PCs. By 1996, while schools and universities were using Internet based email to send messages, the FidoNet community contained almost 40,000 nodes.

As the Internet, and the World Wide Web in particular, exploded in popularity in the early 1990s, FidoNet rapidly died off. Internet e-mail benefited from an “always on” design in which central servers could theoretically speak with dozens of e-mailers at the same moment. E-mail delivery on the Internet was nearly instantaneous. FidoNet servers could typically speak to only one or two users at any given moment, and EchoMail could be delayed up to a day.

Now you would think, given the Internet’s clear advantages on e-mail, that FidoNet should be well dead by now. But as you can see from FidoNet’s most recent nodelist as of this writing, there are several hundred nodes still operating and still interchanging EchoMail with one another.

Successful technology dies very slowly. And very successful technology doesn’t die at all.

Some people think that the automobile destroyed the horse and carriage industry.  These people have never been stuck behind an Amish buggy.

Ten decades in the future, people will take a break from augmented reality in order to write an e-mail, just like their grandparents did. Because e-mail is so quaint, and so old-fashioned, and so romantic.

Why is this the case? Why are people still using this outdated and quaint form of communication with one another?

Perhaps for the same reason that amateur ham operators still try to talk across the Atlantic on longwave radio, when international phone calls are cheap and reliable.

Perhaps for the same reason that vinyl records have seen a resurgence in manufacturing, even though compact discs have significantly better signal-to-noise ratios.

And perhaps for the same reason that handwritten love letters still travel through the post office, a thousand million times slower than an e-mail might.

E-mail (and programs that send e-mail) will be with our race centuries after you and I die, because it has sculpted and defined the lives of countless millions; and we are a nostalgic and romantic race of beings, much more so than being a technologically efficient race.

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