Please Ignore the Previous E-Mail

The September 18th issue of the The New York Times Magazine includes an article by Pagan Kennedy entitled “The Cyborg In Us All”. The article is a brief look at the current state of  science in teaching our brains to control computers. To quote Gerwin Schalk, a 40-year-old computer engineer working on this project, “Fingers are made to pick up a hammer.” Using them to type commands on a keyboard, he says, “is totally ridiculous”.

Ironically, his example, using hammers and computers to make his point, dovetails nicely with the fact that I often think of picking up a hammer and smashing the beejesus out of my evil-spirit-possessed PC on a fairly frequent schedule, but that’s another blog issue.

Gerwin and his medical associates at the Albany New York Medical Center are working on  technology that will allow people to “speak with their neurons, issuing silent commands to their machines.” As the author points out, a person could think the word “cat” and the word would pop up on the screen.

This is science fiction kind of technology and Gerwin and his associates are all giddy with the possible future applications, not just for the neurologically infirm but also for the perfectly healthy, albeit rather slow-ass, keyboard punching, ordinary idiots like me. This vision of the future, wherein we merely think of something to say and it instantly becomes a message and gets “sent”, all in the blink of one’s mind’s eye, has a terrifying downside.

E-mail technology, by its-own-self, has already made ill-conceived communication and poor responses the bane of the Internet. Should we really be working on technology that speeds the process? Our social fabric is already weak at the seams; we don’t need to rip it completely by letting people communicate what is actually on their mind, using only their mind. To poorly paraphrase Twain, “If you want to make people mad, lie to them. If you want to make them livid with rage, tell them the truth.”

In earlier centuries, when a rude or unthoughtful communication arrived, one would sit down with quill and parchment and draft a thoughtful but civil reply. It was that kind of slow communication process that finally healed the rift between Jefferson and Adams.

Imagine, if you can, Jefferson and Adams conducting their communications via e-mail, with or without keyboards:


To: Thomas Jefferson                                                    10:15 am, September 19, 1811

From: John Adams

Subject: State Rights

–with all due respect to your narrow view of federal power and its responsibilities, it behooves me to point out, forsooth, that leaving these major issues to be decided by the states places an unwarranted faith in the goobers who make up most state legislatures, especially those south of Baltimore. Yours faithfully in perpetuity and always even, John


To: John Adams                                                            10:18 am, September 19, 1811

From: Thomas Jefferson

Subject: Re: States Rights

…I am in receipt of your communication of several minutes ago and thought it appropriate to respond post haste rather than to let the matter fester and go rancid as so much butchered beef parts in an un-cooled pantry, such as you and Abigail maintain there in “Bahstun” where, apparently, they still say “behooves” and “forsooth”.

With the possible exception of B. Franklin, no one in the federal bureaucracy has the faintest clue as to effective governance regarding those things that states must deal with on the ground, i.e. the south’s “peculiar institution”, an institution that I freely admit brings me much satisfaction on a nightly basis. So, on this topic you can just pound sand.   Yours ever faithfully and with deepest feelings of admiration for you and yours, Tom


To: Thomas Jefferson                                                        10: 21 am, September 19, 1811

From: John Adams

Subject: Re: Re: States Rights

…stick some rancid meat where the sun don’t shine, buster. As always and with deep affection and sincere admiration, John


To: John Adams                                                                  10:23 am, September 19, 1811

From: Thomas Jefferson

Subject: Re:Re:Re: States Rights

Bugger off you wizened little toad!!!  Your personal servant, devout acolyte and eternal soul-mate, Tom


Do we really think that this sort of conversation builds bridges and soothes old wounds? Now, add the speed-of-thought to what should be civil discourse and the wheels fly off. One more example to secure my point:

Last month I received a bi-monthly water bill of nearly $1,400, approximately seven  times higher than average. Our water usage went from about 250 gallons a day to nearly 1,700 per day. When I e-mailed the county water department for an explanation I received the following e-mail reply:

To: Water/Sewer Customer 1692

From: Gail, County Water/Sewer Administrative Coordinator

Subject: High Charges

Re: your complaint that your July/August Water/Sewer bill is higher than anticipated

As you know, this summer has been unusually hot and dry throughout the Southeast.  It is probable that you have been applying extra water to your plants and shrubs. This is a normal pattern that we see each summer. If you feel that this is not the reason for your increased bill please contact our office for further investigation.


Here is my actual e-mail response.


To: Gail

From: Bruce Brittain, a.k.a. Water/Sewer Customer 1692

Subject: Re: High Charges

Gail–I appreciate your reply. While extra plant watering might have been the cause of excess water usage, we use an automated sprinkler system that has been on exactly the same settings since mid-March. Our water usage during those earlier billing periods are certainly nothing close to the 102,000 gallons reflected on your recent billing statement. Let’s explore alternative explanations.


I can report that this e-mail lead to the subsequent discovery of a water-main leak and the mystery was solved. I can also report that the county refunded a huge chunk of the money and everyone is reasonably happy. However, had I been able to simply “think” my initial response to her e-mail and then have it dashed off at the speed of thought, the results would likely be much different. Why? Because, here is my “read-my-mind” response to her “over-watering” solution; in Gerwin’s future it may have become the actual e-mail:


To: Gail

From: Bruce Brittain, a.k.a. Water/Sewer Customer 1692

Subject: Re: High Charges

Perhaps, Einstein, a more plausible explanation for my water usage to have exploded from an average of 15,000 gallon per billing period to nearly 102,000 gallons is that I opened a water theme park in my yard and forgot to notify your department. Or, perhaps, my wife installed an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the backyard, filled it and failed to mention it to me as our latest home-improvement project.

If I had, as you suggested, dumped an extra 87,000 gallons of water on my pansies and mondo grass in the futile hope that they would flourish to the point that I could enter the entire property in the Rose Bowl Parade, I think that the neighbors might have had problems, what with their cars floating off down the street and all.

I assume that your job with the water/sewer department does not require any formal education and that your position is simply the result of political patronage.

I believe that we can safely assume that something besides a hot, dry summer is at the root of our water usage spike. Try again, you moron.


We can all agree that this approach would have slowed the solution to a crawl and therein lies my terror at the prospect of one’s mind controlling the communications process. We all need a little time to reflect on the likely impact of our responses; immediacy is not necessarily our ally. Although, and I say this with moderate pangs of guilt, it would have felt good to send the “read-my-mind” version.


Observoid of the Day: Space aliens, technologically capable of traveling thousands of light years to visit earth, would not then abduct the world’s dumbest rednecks for probing and evaluation.





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4 Responses to Please Ignore the Previous E-Mail

  1. Lindsay Thomas says:

    While I’m sure that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were lovely, I like their email personas even better.

    Yours ever faithfully and with deepest feelings of admiration for you and yours,

    • Ty yount says:

      If this technology did exist, I would have to immediately take myself off Facebook. My real thoughts towards the mundane updates would cause me to be “unfriended” by every person I know. Respectfully~ Brooke

  2. Thou haft verily ftruck a cord of which neceffarily deemf a reply forthwith (Oh, for thofe halcyon dayf when all the S’s could look like F’s! A tip of the hat to Stan Freberg.).

    The authors of the cyborg research have, in an astonishing oversight, missed the fact that the very qualities they want to impart to the interface between a carbon-based life-form and a silicon-based cyber-form already exists among the former.

    In psych-speak, it’s called “thought broadcasting,” (please see my sincere disclaimer below) which has existed for millenia, but nobody has ever picked up on the connection in this context, well, of course, until right now.

    All you need is one schizophrenic and one paranoid. The schizophrenic’s hallucinations include the ability to broadcast their thoughts into another person, even give them commands, especially if it involves noisy pets in the middle of the night. Paranoids’ delusions include the ability to read thought broadcasts, especially from people they have never met, like the complete stranger walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the street, the FBI, CIA, assorted aliens, or the schizophrenic who lives down a couple of houses with noisy pets in the middle of the night.

    The connection is obvious. Pair one schizophrenic with one paranoid and you have a complete circuit. Put them in the same room–they don’t have to be connected, that’s the beauty of thought broadcasting–and every computer on earth would respond to their psychotransponding!

    What really would be practical, however, is if we could use thought broadcasting to tell the driver who just cut in front of us without signalling our true feelings regarding his or her driving skills and, uh, what we think of . . .well, even on 13th Clown one must maintain some sense of decorum.

    [My Sincere Disclaimer: Psychiatric diseases, which involve psychotic symptoms such as thought broadcast delusions and auditory hallucinations, are in reality terrible illnesses. Having worked with many people whose lives have been disrupted, even destroyed by their effects, I mean no disrespect to them or their suffering.]

  3. steve haymes says:

    I see only a need to live in a much simpler universe where someone else waters the grass and deals with these morons.

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