The Goldberg Variations: Big Brother Is Watching You Type

There are a lot of people my age who yammer on endlessly about the demise of snail mail. These people love to wax nostalgic about the superiority of old-timey letters written on paper –  as if the simple act of using a Bic ballpoint automatically imbues writers with the eloquence of Charlotte Bronte. I could not disagree more, but I happen to love email – it’s fast and practical and also paper-free, which is good news for the rain forests.

And email is better than ever now, thanks to a new program that lets you know if your email message is projecting a negative tone. This program will alert users if their emails sound angry, insulting or unfriendly. There are those who will object to this software, and rail against it as censorship or corporate control, or some such nonsense. But I think it’s a great idea. Writing is hard and people need all the help they can get – if using this software means you’ll antagonize fewer friends and colleagues, then what’s the harm?  Similar software has been developed to detect sarcasm in outgoing emails; again, this is terrific, but why stop there? I think technology should help us all it can – the following are other ways computers should be rigged to save us from ourselves:

  • If you are over the age of twelve and you attempt to make a smiley-face emoticon out of punctuation marks, your computer should seize up and turn itself off in protest. The same holds true if you try to forward a video of cats playing the piano.
  • If you are bragging endlessly about your kids, your job, or your beachfront property, a scolding message should appear on the screen, warning you that no one wants to hear it.
  • If you are breaking up with someone via email, your computer should sadly inform you that you are simply not fit to live.
  • When you’ve wasted an entire day playing Solitaire or Googling people from high school, a pop-up image should appear on your screen, sternly advising you to get a life.
  • Computers should come equipped with some sort of virtual sodium pentothal that prevents people from blatantly misrepresenting themselves on eharmony, and other dating websites.
  • If you are married and you try to contact an old boyfriend on Facebook, an ominous stick-figure of someone playing with fire should appear and warn you that you’re about to ruin your life.
  • If you attempt to forward an email chain letter, a hand should reach out from your keyboard and bitch-slap you till you come to your senses. If the letter warns that breaking the chain will result in bad luck, illness or monetary loss, the computer should deliver a quick but intensely painful electric shock.
  • On the other hand, I think all email providers should embed in every single email message this video by comedian Merril Markoe. It is a two minute clip (which is entirely in French for no good reason) and shows Markoe faking a heart attack while her dogs look on, sweetly and stupidly oblivious, happily depositing chew toys on her limp and lifeless body. The video is goofy and subversively warmhearted, and if everyone watched it several times every day, the world would be a happier place. Now that computers rule the world, they should be obligated to spread cheer wherever they can. Really, it’s the least they can do.

Editor’s Note: Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: Ed Yourdon