[SIGCIS-Members] CBS and Henry Ford Museum laud the "Inventor of EMAIL"

McMillan, William W william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu
Fri Jul 10 15:03:45 PDT 2015

Oh, not my beloved Henry Ford Museum!

I live in the area and am a member, and this cuts me to the quick.

Is this symptomatic of once-rigorous outlets of historical knowledge selling themselves cheaply for popularity and eyeballs?


From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] on behalf of Thomas Haigh [thaigh at computer.org]
Sent: Friday, July 10, 2015 5:54 PM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] CBS and Henry Ford Museum laud the "Inventor of EMAIL"


Maybe we shouldn’t have particularly high expectations for a daytime TV science show fronted by a comedian. Maybe I should just learn not to care. But is CBS’s snappily named “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation With Mo Rocca” really without the services of anyone who knows how to work Google or crank up Wikipedia?

Gerard Alberts was kind enough to send me footage from some kind of branded video screen at the Henry Ford Museum, which claims “14 year old boy” the correct answer to the question “The MO you know… Who invented email?” Mo Rocca’s narration explains helpfully that “Shiva Ayyadurai built the email system that is largely what we use today. While some people dispute this claim, since electronic communications started with the telegraph and Morse code, you can’t argue with a government patent. In 1982, Shiva was granted the US copyright on the word ‘email.’”

[cid:image005.jpg at 01D0BB31.07D5FB40]

[cid:image006.jpg at 01D0BB31.07D5FB40]

For those of you new to this list, or who have blanked the whole thing out, Ayyadurai’s relentless campaign to convince journalists to call him “the inventor of email” has been running since 2010. Many technologies feature people who claim to have been the true inventors, whose pioneering work was unjustly marginalized by the later efforts of large corporations. Ayyadurai is unusual because his claimed invention happened many years after electronic mail was already in widespread use. So rather than simply having to prove that the program he wrote was “email” his quixotic mission is to prove that lots things we all thought were email actually weren’t. I evaluated his claims at www.sigcis.org/ayyadurai<http://www.sigcis.org/ayyadurai> and discussed the media lessons of the original 2012 outbreak in a Communications of the ACM article (http://www.tomandmaria.com/tom/Writing/CACM-SevenLessons.pdf). (One of my observations, proven again here, was that almost nobody seems to understand the difference between copyright and patent, or what each protects).

I found the corresponding TV segment at http://cbsdreamteam.com/the-henry-fords-innovation-nation/episodes/inventor-of-email/. The broadcast narration calls Ayyadurai “hugely responsible” for the decline of postal mail, having “almost single handedly made that glue-licking face extinct.” There follows a short interview Ayyadurai which calls himself “one of the best realizations of the American Dream.” Lots of images from Ayyadurai’s own website, and a moving conclusion praising Ayyadurai’s humanitarian efforts. Ayyadurai has uploaded the clip as http://cbsdreamteam.com/the-henry-fords-innovation-nation/episodes/inventor-of-email/. The show is part of its morning entertainment lineup of, which the network calls “THE CBS DREAM TEAM, IT’S EPIC!”. The segment is reportedly “FCC educational/informational compliant, targeted to 13- to 16-year-olds and appealing to all viewers.”

I’ve come to view Ayyadurai as an inadvertent public servant, a kind of mystery shopper to check the baseline competence of journalists and media outlets. Journalists who repeat his claims fail that test. In this case, for example by advertising to the world that they believe that a copyright is the same thing a patent. Or by making it clear that they don’t scroll down the first screen of Google results to evaluate the credibility of the person they are interviewing, or to check the Wikipedia article about the technology he claims to have invented to see if it assigns him a significant role. As the Columbia Journalism Review urged after the Washington Post embarrassed itself back in 2012, “Google it, Man.”<http://www.cjr.org/darts_and_laurels/darts_and_laurels_mayjune2012.php> In a better world that kind of professional failure would have consequences, such as having to find a line of work that doesn’t involve explaining the history of technology to the public. Sometimes, alas, less is Mo.

Best wishes,


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