History has known more than its fair share of unfortunate individuals who took a sadistic delight in making life miserable for those around them.
But when it comes to inflicting long-term pain and suffering on the human race, we should never forget the name of Ray Tomlinson.
It was 50 years ago that Tomlinson, then a 30-year-old American computer programmer, sat hunched over his keyboard and sent the world’s first email.
That epic first message was never preserved for posterity.
According to Tomlinson it was ‘‘entirely forgettable’’, thus setting an appropriate benchmark for the trillion or more emails that have flooded the world’s inboxes since.
Tomlinson, of course, was not the first inventor to transform communications by launching his creation with a mundane and undistinguished message.
Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, made the first call in history in 1876 by speaking into the receiver and uttering to his assistant: “Mr Watson. Come here. I want to see you.”
The following year Thomas Edison created the phonograph, the first device capable of recording and reproducing sound. To celebrate his momentous innovation he recorded the opening verse of Mary had a little lamb.
But at least the telephone and the phonograph carried the warmth of the human voice and brought pleasure into the world.
Email, with its cold and impersonal format, thrust us into a world of pain.
According to the latest estimates, almost 320 billion emails will be sent this year.
The average office worker will find more than 120 new additions to their inbox each day and will spend close to 20 per cent of their working week reading, sending and deleting them.
While spam forms a large chuck of this electronic traffic – an estimated 40 per cent of unsolicited mail comes from marketing companies and Nigerian scammers – email remains one of the most contentious and time-wasting burdens on all workers.
Why? After 50 years we still haven’t learned how to use it.
Email was originally designed to improve long-form communication and convey ideas and proposals too complicated to outline over the telephone or even in person.
Scientists, particularly, would be able to share their work quickly with others around the world.
It’s here where you have to give email some credit because if we lived in a world without it, in all likelihood we would still be months and perhaps years away from coming up with a coronavirus vaccine.
And let’s not forget that without email, many of you might also miss the penetrating insights on offer at The New Daily.
Tomlinson was working for a technology company helping the United States’ Department of Defence connect its computer system when he tinkered with some code and devised a way for messages to be sent from one computer to another by introducing the “@” sign.
After sending a message he would get up and walk around to an adjacent computer to check the message had arrived.
Now fast forward almost half a century after Tomlinson sent those first emails.
I was in a role where I received several a hundred emails a day.
One of the people reporting to me was a manager who sat 25 metres down the hall from me.
As soon as he sent me an email – one of several dozen a day containing enormous attachments filled with mind-numbing data – I would count to 10 under my breath.
By the time I reached seven he was usually standing at my door, panting breathlessly.
“Did you get my email?” he would ask.
I kid you not.
This happened most days except when he was working from home. And then he would call to make sure his latest missive had arrived safely in my inbox.
In other words, most people have never quite known what email was originally intended for – or how to use it to make their lives (and ours) easier.
Instead, it has become the preferred method of communication for a generation of mediocre managers too afraid or incompetent to eyeball their staff, not to mention a decent camouflage device for all those brown-nosing, time-serving employees who have nothing to offer a business except for their talent for sycophancy.
You know who I’m talking about – that mediocre mob you can find easily in any company who have never had an original idea in their life and spend most of their time covering up their incompetency by sending out pompous, air-filled emails that are little more than shallow brain farts.
They love nothing better than joining a group email with superficial messages of congratulations or support.
They mimic whatever the boss said. Even worse, they pad their emails with corporate jargon and junk language so incomprehensible that a professor of linguistics would need years to work out what they are saying.
It’s not a hard thing to fix.
If companies were serious about lowering the stress and workload of their employees, teaching their staff when to use email – and more importantly, when not to use it and when to make a phone call instead – would form a key part of their corporate philosophy.
As part of their performance review, a staff member could be assessed on the amount of email they send and how they use it.
Ray Tomlinson, who died five years ago this month, was asked once about whether he preferred ‘Email’ over ‘E-Mail’ as a way of describing his invention. He liked ‘email’.
I’m simply trying to conserve the world’s supply of hyphens,” he said.
Unlike so many of history’s inventors who seemed to be dour types obsessed with tinkering in their laboratories, Tomlinson at least seemed to have retained a sense of humour.
Which is more than can be said for the rest of us still wrestling with his invention every damn day.
Walkley Award winner Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists and editors