virus: epistemology of email

Eric Boyd (
Mon, 17 May 1999 00:48:34 -0400


Rhonda Chapman <> writes:

I was NOT attempting to suggest that your discourse was inappropriate. Anyone not up to it can ignore it. Those who are, can get involved and have a nice mind stretching experience.

Well, I suspect the two of us have lost everyone but each other -- it takes me about an hour and a half (sometimes more) to understand TheHermit's post and write back mine. Anybody not investing that level of time is likely to be missing the bulk of the discussion. Even my proposed "patch" (see below) cannot get around the fact that genuine knowledge creation takes thought -- and that thought takes time.

>On the other hand, my other major project at the moment,
>an epistemology of email, is something that this group
>needs *desperately*. The medium of email has proven
>to be a poor one for knowledge creation -- and so we need
>a patch.

I fear you lost me there.

Well, I'll take that as a challenge to communicate the problem, then. (I need to reformulate "The Problem" in the essay anyway, so this is a good opportunity.)


Long term experience with email has revealed certain /dynamics/ which always operate in any list-based email forum. These dynamics -- described below[1] in detail -- range from

(1) motivational problems (why people write emails) to

(2) misintrepretation (lack of bandwidth or context) to

(3) lack of resolution (constant misdirection due to "interruptions") to

(4) an inherent one-on-one discussion style, which cripples group efforts.

The influence of these dynamics is so strong that one is reminded immediatly of McLuhan's "the medium *is* the message". One gets the sense that the *dynamics* control the discussion and lead it away from what is wanted (knowledge creation) and towards

(1) memetic fitness (think flamewars) and

(2) cycles of unproductive discussions revisted time and again.

It is the latter problem that plagues Virus -- to the point where nothing is ever decided. The problem is thus one of knowledge creation: we need an epistemology of email; a systemic understanding of how knowledge is (or could be) created via email discussion.

My *theory* is that such a system will rely on a deep understanding of the dynamics of email, and a conscious approach to email writing which will attempt to change the dynamics -- hopefully leading eventually to

(1) a more "human" discussion forum and

(2) knowledge creation in any field of mutual Virian interest.


[1] Note that this refers to rest of the essay, not included here -- it needs more work.