Coffee, Spam, and What the Web Is Doing to Our Minds, From Mimecast’s Nathaniel Borenstein

1/24/11Follow @gthuang

I learned at least three things over coffee last week with Nathaniel Borenstein, one of the fathers of modern e-mail systems. Sadly, none of them keep me from wanting to set fire to my inbox, which surpassed 30,000 unread messages this weekend.

Borenstein is chief scientist at Mimecast, a U.K.-based e-mail management firm with a strong presence in Boston. He is based in Michigan and has some roots there, as a former faculty member at University of Michigan and a founder of NetPOS, an e-commerce firm in Ann Arbor, MI. He is also a deep thinker on technology and society who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, so I kept my notebook open and ready as we talked about current trends in tech and business.

Here are my three takeaways, from specific to general:

1. Voltage Coffee & Art, the new startup hangout spot near Kendall Square, doesn’t strike out-of-towners like Borenstein as a very inviting place for meetings. It’s not particularly cozy or private, especially for a cafe. (Truth be told, I don’t love its coffee either, but that’s what a couple years in snobby Seattle will do to you.) But it’s still a good place to get work done or have a non-private meeting—and definitely a nice gathering spot for entrepreneurs.

2. The spam wars continue, albeit more quietly. It seems like all the talk about “spam killing the Internet” peaked about five or six years ago. And, despite my inbox woes—some messages are spam I haven’t deleted yet—I feel like spam isn’t the problem it once was. Not so, says Borenstein. We’ve just reached “homeostasis,” he says, whereby more people work on combating spam when it gets bad, but when they ease up, spammers swoop in and try new things. Borenstein thinks micropayments—a clever way to make spammers pay for sending messages—might be the most effective solution (though micropayments in general still face an uphill climb because banks don’t like the idea, he says). “We’ve barely scratched the surface of countermeasures,” he says. “It makes me think the Internet is not complete.”

3. Timing is everything, especially in the business of technology. This is a well-worn truth, but as the latest examples, Borenstein points to speech recognition (especially on mobile phones), tablet computing (iPad and all its soon-to-be competitors), and the sector du jour, group buying. Each of these is an old idea whose time has come. In particular, daily-deal sites like Groupon are “driven by a good idea that’s not primarily technology,” he says. “That’s also why it’s sustainable.” What’s more, Borenstein predicts there will be more than one or two winners in the sector. “It could be a market with a lot of chimps and no gorilla,” he says.

Lastly, we talked about a darker side of technology that’s been getting a lot of attention lately: the impact of the Web on humankind’s ability to think deeply. Borenstein penned a blog post last week called “The Internet is turning you into a high-tech lab rat.” The title, which references Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, pretty much says it all. The idea is that dealing with constant e-mails, tweets, blogs, social networks, and addictive games is overloading people’s brains and degrading their ability to think about important things. (This also ties into what my colleague Wade calls “on demand disorder.”)

Borenstein doesn’t totally buy the argument, but he is taking some steps to combat distractions—by doing things like delaying all but his most important incoming and outgoing e-mails. (That reminded me of Baydin, the e-mail tech startup that recently moved from Boston to Silicon Valley, as was first reported by my colleague Erin.)

But perhaps it is telling that several of Borenstein’s friends and colleagues who were Internet pioneers “have become disillusioned and headed for the hills,” he says. Indeed, many who were involved in the early days of the Web, he says, “now think it was a bad idea.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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