Around this time last year, I received an email from a good friend of mine. Pressures of work for both of us meant we'd not spoken for a few months, so it was good to hear from her. She was having a few friends round for dinner in a couple of weeks and suggested that I pop over. Sadly, my diary was already full for that evening as I was due to speak at an IT security seminar, so I emailed her back with some alternative dates.
Move forward a couple of weeks. It was 10pm and I was on a train heading home to Sussex from London, having attended the seminar. It was my friend, asking why I hadn't shown up. "Didn't you get the email I sent?", I asked. She hadn't, and so assumed I was coming. Never mind, we could always rearrange.
Move forward six months. I'm on a train again, heading home from London. I've just attended a memorial service. My friend had collapsed and died from a brain haemorrhage while on a business trip. We never did get to fix up dinner. She was just 42.
In most industries, email is rarely a matter of life or death. And email certainly isn't to blame in this case. But we all now live and breathe email, where once the phone ruled. When I started out in journalism 21 years ago, I spent almost all of my working day on the phone. Nowadays, I make no more than three calls a week and receive even fewer. Email certainly rules. But our total reliance on a relatively immature technology has come about too quickly.
There's never a 100 per cent guarantee that a message you send will actually arrive. An incoming message might actually be a virus. You might miss an important message because it was buried among hundreds of spams. Your incoming messages might be bounced by your service provider because you have exceeded your traffic quota. Your messages might be intercepted by a hacker and divulged to your competitors. A message might be a fake, which doesn't actually come from the person whose name appears in the header. Any or all of which might mean that you miss out on a business meeting, a crucial deal, a fun night out, a new job, or a final chance to catch up with a friend of 20 years' standing before they die.
I get dozens of new product announcements by email every week. I also receive similar numbers of follow-up messages asking "did you get the email that we sent you?". I was once of the opinion that email was more reliable than snail mail, and that following up email was unnecessary. Nowadays, I'm not so sure.