Saturday, 12 March 2016

Email. Should we thank Ray Tomlinson?

On Monday, I am tasked with giving whole school assembly.  The theme for the term is current affairs.  There's lots to talk about but I have gone for something a little different. What follows is my talk.

Clearly, as Head of MFL I should stand here today and talk about Europe - should we be in or out? However, the papers are full of articles and editorials and I am going to leave it to you to read these and make these important decisions yourself. 

Instead I want to talk about this man. 
Image courtesy of

On 6th March, Ray Tomlinson died.

You may not have any idea who this man is.  But his work has, even if you did not know it, impacted on the way you now communicate.  Indeed in my lifetime, which is not quite half a century, communication has changed beyond recognition.  As a youngster I recall people using fax, telephones looked like this and I used to send my Australian relatives airmail letters. On my year abroad in Russia I sent telegrams as it was so cheap, and when I was in France I used to call home from a phone box that looked like this.  As I said, things have changed significantly since then.

Tomlinson invented and sent the first email.  It is Tomlinson who put the @ symbol on the map. The content of that first email apparently is not of much interest at all, Tomlinson himself said its content was ‘completely forgettable’  but that is not really the point.  What matters is the change that this first email then brought about on our systems of communication.  

To illustrate my point. When I was about 14, I was a big fan of Hollywood movies and in particular films from the golden age of Hollywood.  I was particularly interested in this actor.  

Image courtesy of 

I was a huge fan and I decided to write to him.  I can't recall exactly what I wrote but I especially wanted to know if It's a Wonderful Life was his favourite film - it certainly was mine.  Once I had finished my letter I sealed it in an envelope.  But, then I hit a problem.  Where was I going to send my letter? There was no internet for instant information.  I couldn't check his web page and Twitter did not exist then.  I decided that I should send the letter to a publisher of a biography of Jimmy Stewart. 

About seven months later, joy of joys, I received a reply.  From the publishers of the biography.  They told me that my letter had been sent to the author with a covering letter.  Ok.  It wasn't what I was expecting but I was getting somewhere.   About six months after that I received another letter.  This time from the author himself telling me he had posted my letter to James Stewart’s agent in Hollywood. 

Then one day about two years after I had sent my initial letter,  my response from James Stewart arrived. It is still one of my most treasured possessions.  Perhaps it means so much to me because I had to wait so long for it, because I had to put so much effort into getting it to James Stewart.  

There can be a joy in receiving a letter that you just don't get in an email.  Or from a message in facebook or on snapchat or twitter. 

These days when I want to contact someone famous I generally tweet them.  This has brought me success on a number of occasions I am always pleased when I do get a response but it's not the same as the joy I had when I received my letter from James Stewart.  I don't remember what the tweets say, I don't print out the 140 characters. The tweet simply gets lost in amongst the thousands of others that get sent.  It’s not the same as holding and keeping a letter.  A letter where so much more thought and consideration has gone into the words and the message. 

I'm not the sort of person who hankers after the past.  I consider myself to be forward thinking and I embrace technology.  Email is great and I think we have a lot to thank Tomlinson for.  It has enabled us to communicate so much more quickly and efficiently.  But email has its drawbacks too.

The speed with which we can respond to an email is not always a good thing.  We must take our time and consider whether we need to reply, whether it might actually be better to talk face to face to whoever has emailed us.  We need also to consider whether we are able to communicate our message successfully.  A great deal can be lost in translation.

And the expectation that because you have sent an email a reply should be forthcoming straight away is just unhealthy.  

From the initial email sent by Tomlinson communication has come far:

For example in a day:  

300 000 new people join twitter 
55 million tweets are written
35 million people update their facebook status
The average user spends nearly an hour on facebook 
2 billion videos are watched on you tube
34 560 hours of video is uploaded to you tube

And that does not take into account the millions of posts, chats and comments, that appear every day on blogs, forums and sites around the world. 

Now that we have tablets, phones and laptops email and social media is with us everywhere we go - there is no escape. Since Tomlinson invented email we now have systems of communication that allow us to collaborate,  express ourselves in blogs, comment on other peoples videos, face time, skype, be in touch with old friends, set up group chats and a whole host of other tools.  These days everyone can talk to everyone about anything all the time and the conversations can be accessed again and again. 

This means that we must be careful.  Email and social media is not the problem.  It’s the people that misuse them that are the problem.  So the next time you are about to click send, post a message, tweet, post a picture on instagram, contribute to an online forum take a moment to consider - is this something you would want to receive?  Is this the image you want to portray?  Is this something that you want others to see again and again?  

Yes.  Ray Tomlinson - we have a lot to thank you for - but you have given us plenty to think about too.