Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Public E-Mail Booths? Democratizing Technology

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Public E-Mail Booths? Democratizing Technology

Article excerpt

Although usually born of necessity, once in a while invention springs to life spontaneously, creating a need where none existed before. Over the years what first appeared as exotic, if only marginally useful, technologies - radio, television, fax, even the first computers - are exactly such phenomena, mushrooming unexpectedly into central elements of our lives. Today e-mail presents itself as the next potential candidate, but in order to succeed, it must be two things: accessible and useful.

For e-mail to succeed, access has to be as simple as using the phone. That the Internet currently uses phone lines suggests this is possible, that with correct public policy we may achieve universal access.

What remain to be implemented are the assurances, which we often take for granted, provided by first-class mail: privacy, authenticity, and integrity of the message. The good news is that the technology that would allow these features to exist already does. Nothing more need be invented. What is needed are the proper "certifying authorities," a system, like the postal service, to regulate and make it all happen, and the government is already moving in this direction. Perhaps the more important issue, however, is the second: whether e-mail, and universal access to it, is truly useful. As was the case with the radio in its early days, the issue isn't only how well the technology works, but what you can actually do with it. In its early days, radio languished as a curious but nonessential bit of technology; It was not until radio dramas were used to sell soap flakes, what later became "soap operas," that radio began its rise to popularity. The Internet has moved well beyond this point. In terms of e-mail, however, more useful and more important functions can and should be targeted. …

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