Published: June 18, 2000

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 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 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 deal.

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 Smucker.

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 implosion Monday was just the latest in a string of high-profile collapses that includes the fashion site and the crime-reporting site (Reel may stay open in some form, but its e-commerce operations will reportedly cease.)

Now, we see, 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 fall?

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.

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