The Geek Poet
Thirty years after he started email at UNC, Paul Jones asks for your forgiveness —
and your help in killing it. It’s not the first time he’s chased something impossible.
ur man is at his
desk, checking his
sites. His long,
wavy, gray hair — for which he was
inducted into the Luxuriant Flowing Hair
Club for Scientists (which lives online at
improbable.com/projects/hair) — falls
over his turtleneck, just one eye-catching
sight in an office tumbling with books and
monitors and forgotten computers and one
large, stuffed, purple-and-green dragon. He
has no windows to open, most certainly
none that belong to the eponymous operat-
ing system. He does not require them.
Enough portals already exist inside his own
mind to birth any alternate universe he
wishes, including one in which the scourge
of email no longer torments the human race.
And that is where our story begins.
Jones. engages in a conversation via private
Facebook message with a HIGH-LEVEL
Admin. I just sent you an email.
Jones. Why didn’t you just post what
you wanted to say here? [Aside] I did not
reply, “You idiot,” because he’s a guy who
I like who is also responsible for my salary.
Admin. Because I think you should
Jones. That’s very nice, but I told you in
advance that I was giving up email.
Admin. But, I thought you were only
going to do it for a couple of weeks!
Jones. No, this is forever.
Admin. [Panicked, fearful.] What??
But how will I reach you?
Jones lets loose his devilish, throaty
laugh. As a published poet (he holds an
MFA in the field from Warren Wilson
College), he loves the comedic irony of
this wink-wink moment with the audience, which he shared during a presentation to graduate students in a health communication class in February. But as a
certified technological nerd (he holds a
bachelor’s in computer science from N.C.
State), who still has a pocket protector
somewhere beneath the detritus of his
office to prove it, Jones knows his anecdote also aptly describes both the merits
and the madness of his current project: the
complete abolition of email in favor of
what he calls faster, more interactive, more
efficient forms of communication.
Got a message for Jones? Find him on
Facebook, Twitter or instant message. Got
a page you want him to edit? Upload it to
Google Docs. Got a meeting to schedule
with him? Google calendar. Got a picture
you’d like to share of your cute cat? Just
(Or, if you must, please use a photo-sharing site.)
“I want appropriate streams of commu-
nication,” Jones says, his twangy voice ris-
ing theatrically. “I want to be able to inter-
act quickly when I want to interact
quickly; I want to edit when I want to
edit; I want to make appointments when I
want to make appointments.”
He pounds his fist on the table. “And I
don’t want any attachments! Ever!”
What Jones has initiated for himself and
what he seeks for others is the destruction
of a system for which he helped write the
code 30 years ago as a member of the
Office of Information Technology at Car-
olina, a system that he peddled, office-by-
campus-office, through the glorious low-
rent visual of old-school slides, touting
email as the greatest thing since … well,
since computers themselves.