AT first glance, it would appear that Moses Smucker and I reside on the
opposite ends of the long boulevard that is American culture. We are as unalike
as two citizens in this age can possibly be.
He is a middle-aged Pennsylvania Amish businessman selling horse
harnesses, essential technology of the 19th century. I am a
not-yet-middle-aged native Californian writing about technology that was
still in beta three weeks ago. And yet, as unlikely as it may seem,
Smucker's digital destiny and my own crossed, albeit briefly, on the
Internet not long ago.
There is no polite way to say this so I'll just spit it out: This man
Smucker spammed me.
Spammed by the Amish. Why, the very notion sounds about as
preposterous as, say, being car-jacked by a rogue troop of Girl Scouts. But
it really happened. The unsolicited e-mail I received on June 5 from
email@example.com was actually from the bell-and-chime division of
Smucker's Harness Shop. The ''small Amish factory located in the heart of
Lancaster, Pennsylvania,'' is a 35-person operation with an international
customer base spread over four continents. The bell-and-chime division
includes a full-service, e-commerce-enabled Web site where Smucker sells a
variety of pricey items from door chimes to dog collars. The spam I
received was intended to promote traffic to the Web site.
Like everyone else living hand-to-mouse, I struggle every day with an
in-box jammed with the digital detritus of countless spammers. And like
most everyone else, I simply delete 99 percent of it unread and go on with
my business. But there was something about this bell-and-chime pitch that
really bugged me.
If ever there was a group of Americans that you'd expect to be attuned
to the dehumanizing consequences of out-of-control technology, it would be
the Amish. They are the very last subculture in this country that you'd
expect to see engaged in what amounts to the industrial pollution of the
cyber-commons. And yet here is this maker of bells and harnesses, this
paragon of life in the slow lane pumping out spam! The moment that missive
hit my mail server, he became no better than the folks touting
40-pound-a-month diet plans and high-growth investment opportunities
involving Caribbean conch farms.
This Smucker, I thought, has got some brass bells indeed if he thinks
people are going to let this slide without comment.
There was an opt-out note at the bottom of the spam telling me to e-mail
smuckers.com if I wanted to be free of future missives. This is a common
ploy spammers use to ascertain which e-mail addresses are live. Instead of
a ''buzz-off'' e-mail, I decided to step one rung down the
telecommunications ladder with Smucker.
I called the shop. (Yes, it follows that the Amish who have Web sites
have telephones as well.) Put my man Moses on, I said. And in a minute a
man with a deep baritone voice -- I pictured someone with the
chiseled-granite visage of former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop -- came
on the line.
Smucker, a man blessed with a certain economy of expression, set me
straight on a number of points post haste. I'd assumed there was some
religious injunction among the Amish that barred them from using the Net.
Wrong. Smucker has no problem using the Web to market his wares. ''It's a
brand new thing. It's kind of up in the air,'' he said. ''What people are
doing is getting a (non-Amish) go-between to do it for them. I think it'll
be acceptable as long as it's done with an outside firm.''
His computer consultant, a local Pennsylvania shop called Ware
Unlimited, was responsible for building and running the whole smuckers.com
I told Smucker that I'd assumed the Amish were insulated from much of
digital culture. ''We're not insulated from anything,'' he said flatly.
I mentioned the e-mail campaign. How did this Amish enterprise become a
spam-ish one? This, too, was one of the consultant's ideas, he said. He
wasn't quite sure how it would work. I explained how it worked for me on
the receiving end, how sending unsolicited business mail is considered to
be offensive behavior. ''I have heard no negative reaction so far,'' said
Pressing on, I asked him: Surely, he must become very irritated with the
pyramid schemes and porn come-ons that clog his own e-mail every day. No,
said Smucker. All his e-mail goes to the consultant. There is no computer
in the harness shop, so he doesn't see any spam. Not a single byte.
The Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude. That's
experiencing glee at someone else's misfortune. And that seems to be the
sport du jour these days -- celebrating as one flimsy Net storefront after
another falls down. The Reel.com implosion Monday was just the latest in a
string of high-profile collapses that includes the fashion site boo.com and
the crime-reporting site APBnews.com. (Reel may stay open in some form, but
its e-commerce operations will reportedly cease.)
Now, we see www.dotcomfailures.com, a bare-bones site that's little more
than a bulletin board-style repository for every sort of anonymous nasty
tidbit and scurrilous rumor floating on the surface of the Web fishbowl.
Am I the only one who finds it vaguely unsettling how fast our
collective consciousness has gone from romanticizing the dot-com world to
vilifying it to celebrating the first signs of its supposed decline and
Just as the ride up was overblown, the story of the collapse has been
oversold as well. There's no great moral lesson to be learned here. And no
mystery why small start-ups with unsustainable burn rates are shutting
down. So let's give it a rest.