Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shane Greenstein on a false history of email

Sometimes people believe that they deserve more credit than they're getting, and Shane Greenstein writes about a man who believes he should be credited with inventing email.  (Earlier this morning I mistakenly identified the author of the post as Shane's co-blogger Joshua Gans; apologies to both.) Apparently the fellow who thinks he invented email and should get the credit for it is pretty clearly mistaken, but the Huffington Post took the bait, and so Shane organizes his post about how that makes HuffPo a much less trustworthy news source than he had hoped. (Apparently some things on the internet just aren't true...)  HuffPo and the Loss of Trust

"Now for the detail: HuffPo published a multipart history of email that is historically inaccurate. Yes, you read correctly. More specifically, a few of the details are correct, but those are placed next to some misleading facts, and these are embedded in a certifiably very misleading historical narrative. The whole account cannot be trusted.
The account comes from one guy, Shiva Ayyadurai, who did some great programming as a teenager. He claims to have invented electronic mail in 1978 when he was fourteen. He might have done some clever programming, but electronic mail already existed by the time he did his thing. Independent invention happens all the time in technological history, and Shiva is but another example, except for one thing. He had his ideas a little later than others, and the other ideas ended up being more influential on subsequent developments. Shiva can proudly join the long list of geeky teenagers who had some great technical skills at a young age, did some cool stuff, and basically had little impact on anybody else.
Except that Shiva won’t let it go. This looks like nothing more than Shiva’s ego getting in the way of an unbiased view.
Look, it is extremely well established that the email systems in use today descended from a set of inventors who built on each other’s inventions. They did their work prior to 1978. For example, it is well documented that the “@” in every email first showed up in 1971. Ray Tomlinson invented that. Others thought it was a good idea, and built on top of the @. We all have been doing it ever since. Moreover, this is not ancient history. Tomlinson has even written about his experiences, and lots of people know him. This is easy to confirm.
Though Ayyadurai’s shenanigans were exposed a few years ago, he persists. In the HuffPo piece yet again he pushes the story in which his inventions played a central place in the history of electronic mail. This time he has a slick infographic telling his version of things, and he managed to get others to act as shills for his story. He also now accuses others of fostering a conspiracy against his views in order to protect their place in history and deny him his.As if. “A teenager invented electronic mail” might be a great headline, and it might sound like a great romantic tale, but this guy is delusional."
Shane focuses on trust in news sources, but I can't help sympathize a bit with the delusional guy.  I know of many cases in which someone feels, often with considerable justice, that they don't get the credit they deserve. That's part of the problem with apportioning credit, and it may be a near universal feeling. You can certainly witness it among academics, and probably also among top athletes who don't make it to the Olympic podium or the Hall of Fame, and maybe even among some of those who do. Maybe a good sanity check on whether you are delusional is if you think there's a conspiracy...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is slightly ironic that the author of the post you are referring to is Shane Greenstein, not Joshua Gans.