Professor Juan Monroy
September 26, 2011
Profile of an Internet Technology: Email
There is generalized panic taking over at the United States Postal Service, where the agency is plummeting quickly into bankruptcy, a condition mostly attributed to the rise and popularity of e-mail. Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, stated that postal mail is “one of America’s oldest institutions-it survived the telegraph, it survived the telephone, and we have to do everything we can to preserve it and adapt.” Rolando is referring here to the sociological trend of anxiety that occurs when a new technology emerges; an anxiety that is often proved to be unwarranted. In order for the postal service to adapt, it is important to ask some core questions about the technology of email, including addressing what its main purposes are and tracking its history and evolution.
E-mail technology is likely more commonly used than any other “new media” application. Due to its simplicity and ease of use, email is accessible to many different populations. Simply stated, the role of e-mail is to exchange messages between Internet users. The messages, which are sent and received almost immediately, can be viewed, archived, deleted, and printed. There are two system aspects to today’s e-mail technology. The first is called the Message Handling System (the MHS), which moves messages from senders to receivers using a set of servers called Message Transfer Agents (MTA’s). Second, the User Agent (UA) system allows the user to manage and create messages. Both systems interact to ensure mail delivery. Protocols (a standardized system of digital message formats and rules for exchanging messages) operate in each subsystem to allow for smooth operation. In the MHS, protocols determine how to send a message, and in the UA, network protocols manage personal mailboxes. In order for the e-mail system to work, both systems must abide by the standardized format of the e-mail message and its accompanying meta-data.
What happens when an email is sent? Person “A” formats a message and sends it using the Submission Protocol (otherwise known as the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). The Local Mail Submission Agent receives this message and looks at the delivery address of Person “B”, specifically processing the domain name in the Domain Name System (DNS). Person “B” accesses the message using the Message Transfer Agent (MTA) located on their Internet connection. Using the “get mail” function in their e-mail provider, the Person “B” reads the message via the Post Office Protocol (POP3) or the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP4).
See Video: How Email Works
According to Ray Tomlinson, who is attributed as the person who sent the first network email, e-mail was created “mostly because it seemed like a neat idea. There was no directive to “go forth and invent email. The ARPANET was a solution looking for a problem.” Furthermore, Tomlinson even states that “a colleague suggested that I not tell my boss what I had done because email wasn’t in our statement of work.” Messages were also sent across computers before there were integrated networks. In the 1960s, users on a single system were able to transfer messages to one another. In the early seventies, Dick Watson put forth the idea that the New Network Information Center (the NIC) could distribute documents via the ARPANET. Ray Tomlinson simplified Watson’s idea by implementing email through TENEX, a single computer system that already had an existing local email program called SNDMSG. Tomlinson attached his file transfer service, CYPNET, to SNDMSG to create the first MTA (Message Transfer Agent). SNDMSG instructed CPYNET at a remote host to attach and send the message to a particular user’s mailbox, a task soon taken over by a standardized FTP (File Transfer Protocol). Additionally, Tomlinson standardized the “e-mail address form” user@remote format. Both Tomlinson and Watson understood e-mail’s use only as ASCII strongs of text, with usernames and logins distributed by the Network Information Center.
First used to connect users within the ARPANET and then within only TENEX systems, e-mail now was on a journey to connect other users in different networks. The advent of MLFL, which streamlined file names for mailboxes, allowed for email to be read across system limitations. Other applications evolved with the ultimate goal of making e-mail access simpler and more ubiquitous, such as MSG, which combined functions such as a help system, move/save/delete, answer, and forward. As times progressed, email, while retaining its original form, constantly adapted to the social needs of the time through the advent of standardized formats.
While e-mail can be used for casual and brief messages between parties across the Internet, it also has other important uses. First, e-mail can be used to transfer files, which is precisely the function the postal office is concerned about. The role of e-mail transformed from sending short, almost telegraphic, communications to attaching files that could once only be sent via the Postal Service.
Secondly, by abusing the gaps in e-mail, it can also be used for excessive advertising, or as it is sometimes called, “spam.” Due to the low cost of sending e-mails, advertisers can send hundreds of e-mail every day. Furthermore, “email worms” are a form of virus that copy themselves onto susceptible computers, particularly computers running on the Microsoft Windows Operating System. Though legislation has been passed (The Can Spam Act of 2003) to restrict the sending of spam e-mail, some unsolicited emails still get through. On the other hand, however, e-mail can be used as an inexpensive and efficient way for companies and advertisers to stay in touch with their clientele.
E-mail also has important implication for business use. It allows all the members in an office to access constant and updated information. Additionally, members of the office can communicate with one another even when people are not physically in the building, when timing doesn’t match up, or when conference calls or face-to-face meetings are impossible or expensive. Use of e-mail in business, however, has new legal implications, such as liability of statements written through email.
Email is a very useful technology that creates many new societal possibilities. When engineered properly and with the right software, e-mail can be crucial in creating a more inclusive communication network for those with physical or mental disabilities. Assistive technologies that read out e-mail, such as DragonSpeak, or translate messages into Braille provide a somewhat inexpensive option for accessibility that replaces solutions that were bulkier and harder to access. Since e-mail is the simplest of all new media to use, it is also accessible to an aging population who are unfamiliar with new technologies.
E-mail creates new opportunities for individuals who are homeless. It is impossible to apply for a job without some way to contact the applicant, and even a “pay as you go” cell phone is often unreliable due to short battery life and high costs. E-mail accessed through a free portal, such as a public library, allows everyone to have a “permanent address” which to call their own, something that is increasingly important in a society that puts great value on those with private property.
Though there are numerous advantages to using e-mail, there are still areas that the postal service could be useful. There are privacy concerns with sending important information over e-mail, as information sent over the web can be vulnerable to hackers, and material items still must be sent via the postal service. A careful analysis by the Postal Service on the effect of e-mail on message would be helpful in determining how the USPS could restructure their agency to fill more needs.
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