What Hath God Wrought Dot Com

It turns out your mother was right when she spent the better part of your formative years drumming it into your head that you can bring technology to the Luddite, but you can't make him use it. Okay, so that's not really what she said, she might have had she owned the computer you gave her two years ago that she still can't manage to turn on no matter how many times you draw her an illustration showing that the power switch is the huge button on the front.

This comes to mind because, contrary to his wonk image, it turns out that Bill Clinton was a closet Luddite. Sure, he presided over the flowering of the Internet Age. And yes, his vice president claimed to have invented the Internet, at least until he explained that in his mind "inventing" and "voting to fund" meant the same thing . But the truth is, Clinton didn't make use of the technology. While he was in the White House he sent only two e-mails -- count 'em, two! -- and they were a joke about a rabbi, a priest and Bob Dole, which he forwarded to Hilary and Elizabeth Dole. Just kidding. Actually, the first one was a test e-mail to see if he knew how to do it ("Wow, this is almost as much fun as lurking in the sex -- I mean, sax -- chat room") while the second was a note to John Glenn who was orbiting Earth at the time. I'm sure Clinton would have preferred to send Glenn a postcard but you know how hard it can be to find one that says "Having a great time, wish Newt Gingrich was there."

Contrast that with how his staff used e-mail. According to a spokesperson at the Clinton Presidential Foundation (motto: "Thongs are considered a foundation, aren't they?"), the former president's staff churned out nearly 40 million e-mails. That's about 14,000 a day, 570 an hour, and an awful lot of time taken away from important tasks like searching online for naked photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Every one of those e-mails will be archived in the presidential library, including Clinton's two, which you'll be able to find in a dusty corner of a rarely used hard drive along with Hilary's plan to fix the health care system.

The foundation's spokesperson says the reason there are so few e-mails from Clinton is that he's more of a personal note and telephone guy. He's probably like the people I run into who, when you e-mail them, reply with, "Call me." Or the editor I worked with a couple of years ago who told me he only checked e-mail every few days, so if I sent one I should call and let him know so he could go online and look for it. Uh, are we missing a major concept here?

It's high time everyone caught on to using e-mail. After all, if Morse code can come kicking and screaming into the 21st century, so can you. That's right, last December the International Telecommunications Union (motto: "Listen for the union label") voted to add a new character to the Morse code arsenal, the first time they've done that since before World War II. It's the "@" symbol. You know, the one used in your e-mail address. Go ahead, stop for a second and think about sending an e-mail address using Morse code. I'll wait.

The new sign will be dot-dash-dash-dot-dash-dot, which is the letter "A" followed by "C." They're calling it the "commat," which as far as I can tell they made up because the word "at" is way too difficult to pronounce. This change of symbol name reminds me of a few years ago when some Internet start-up people thought it would be cute to pronounce "www" as dub-dub-dub, so they walked around telling people their Web site address sounding like drowning fish. If you want to know why it didn't catch on, just go to your local Burger King and ask them. But wait until they've finished asking, "Would you like fries with that?"

It's interesting that Morse code now has the "@" sign yet it still doesn't have an exclamation point. That's right, when communicating in Morse code you can use a simple declarative sentence and ask a question but you can't emphasize anything. No wonder it never caught on with the masses, it's too monotonous. Another symbol they don't have is the "#", which we call the pound sign in the U.S. while most other countries call it the "hash mark," particularly in England where they don't want it to be confused with their hold-out against the euro. In some geeky circles it's called the octothorpe, which -- True Fact Alert! -- was made up by a guy at Bell Labs during the 1960's [insert hippie drug culture joke here] and hasn't been used since by anyone who doesn't spend his spare time bemoaning the demise of pocket protectors, slide rules, and lab coats as a fashion statement.

I now have this image stuck in my head of sailors on a battleship blinking huge lights, or using semaphore flags, to send a message to someone on another ship: "Email me at heysailor@hotmail.com, and hurry." There's a better chance of that happening than there is of someone emailing a message using Morse code. Unless, of course, it's from Bill Clinton.

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