STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/19/2008
Lately I've noticed that junk email has come out of its bawdy adolescence and moved into a verbose young adulthood. When I was at Gordon the messages that popped in were short and direct, causing me to quickly delete them, then look over each shoulder to make sure no one in the Jenks kiosks was around to "get the wrong idea." I figured at any moment June Bodoni, director of the Center for Technology Services (CTS), would send her cronies swarming out of the helpdesk to lead me away. It was a nerve-wracking time; I was trying to hide a dark secret I didn't actually have.
But the new breed of junk email is no longer morally dubious; it contains random selections of text that are as intriguing as they are nonsensical. People (I think) with names like "Ursula Hurst" and "Bee Lindenmuth" have been sending me advertisements that advertise nothing. Subject titles are ambiguous, claiming things like "Slightlimbed Slightly Slightmade" or "Do Balsa Rooftree."
I've started saving these messages in their own subfolder precisely because they are random. I recently read an unpublished essay on "randomness" written by a colleague of mine, and what struck me most was the idea that "random" is a word used to describe a thing or phenomenon that we currently do not understand. It suggests mutability--that even though it makes grey matters greyer now, there's a chance more understanding can be gained.
Email has secured a demanding and fairly unexamined hold on the contemporary work world. Over two years ago when I took up my post as Gordon's web editor, I inhabited a back office in the Design Center. Most of the time it was a solitary work habitat, my only colleague being my laptop and, more specifically, my email inbox. My workdays were spent laboring under the demands of the "Send & Receive" function. Sure, these emails represented real people with requests, but there was no governing force (I thought) that triaged these messages in any sort of order save for chronology. Sometimes a request from a month ago would get lost in the bloated box.
As the pressure built I realized I suffered from IBS: Inbox Burial Syndrome. (To avoid confusion with the stomach ailment, I will refer to this syndrome as "ibs"--rhymes with "dibs.") Having no physical boss in my office anymore, ibs took over as my supervisor. With a tyrannical bold face, ibs kept me busy all day, every day. If I went to a meeting, ibs punished me with five to 10 new messages by the time I returned. Ibs didn't care about lunch breaks either.
As if being bold weren't enough, ibs often used a red exclamation mark to let me know this could be a matter of life or death. It ordered "Hold everything! The Gordon Alumni Office needs you to approve a survey on whether free apple cider increases giving!" I'd silently mutter to ibs, "But what about this message from Sallie Mae that reads 'Final Notice: Pay Now or we'll tell the Alumni Office to never give you free apple cider again!'?"
"Does it have a red exclamation mark next to it?" asks ibs.
"Then ignore it and focus on the REAL emergency!"
"Yes, ibs. Right away, ibs."
When Grant Hanna became the first human to assist me in my web duties, he often played Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach. Its syncopated arpeggios were both alarming and sedating, and some of its text came from advertising and cultural lingo of the 70s. It was, in fact, quite akin to the random emails I've been saving--and the opera became a commentary on the amount and velocity of messaging we face every day.
I no longer work at Gordon, but irritable ibs still takes the reins when I log onto my email. It is this conditioning--and my belief that if Einstein were to go to the beach nowadays he'd take a laptop--that has led me to collect this e-pablum. Through lazily pasted phrases that appear to be taken from headlines, URLs and the occasional literary reference, these emails hold a script-mirror to society and show us the effects of data saturation. In saving them I overwhelm my inbox from time to time, prompting red exclamation-marked messages from CTS that I am approaching my limit--and they couldn't be more right.
bryan parys doesn't like to capitalize his name and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire. Not only does he save junk email, but his friends have begun to forward him their junk gems. This has inspired him to start writing his own electronic opera of sorts.