E-mail Pioneer Borenstein Sees Hope, Flaws in Chaotic Tech Industry

Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at e-mail management company Mimecast, wears many hats: he’s a pioneer in the development of e-mail, a lay theologian, a grandfather who is married to his high school sweetheart, a vegetarian, a former “cyber banker,” and a pacifist. However, he is best known for successfully sending the world’s first e-mail attachment on March 11, 1992.

He’s also one of our Detroit/Ann Arbor Xconomists, so we got in touch to pick his brain about the current state of the Internet, what to make of the various scandals and negativity enveloping Silicon Valley, and where we go from here.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Borenstein, in the later stage of his career, would want to discuss the past as much as the future. We’re now living in a time when the Internet looks less like a paradigm-shifting, democratizing platform for mass communication and engagement, and more like a monstrous tool capable of upending democracy when in nefarious hands. What does Borenstein—a man who has seen the digital world grow from infancy and who almost abandoned the industry after the dot-com bubble burst at the end of the ‘90s—think of our current predicament?

“I was very naïve—at first, this technology was so cool with so much potential, there was no doubt it would be a great thing for the world,” he says. “By 2000 or so, I felt the opposite. Now, I think it’s, on balance, a little more on the good side.”

Borenstein says he cringes a little when people thank him for creating the e-mail attachment. “If they’re going to give me credit, then I also deserve the blame for those sending malware and child porn.” Technology is neutral, he emphasizes—it’s what people do with it that matters. But he admits that in those heady early days, he didn’t foresee that e-mail attachments would be one day be used to carry out acts of cyberterrorism.

Born in 1957, Borenstein stumbled into a career in computer science after briefly toying with the idea of joining the clergy. Artificial intelligence captured his attention as an undergrad studying math and religion, and he went on to write a thesis about the concept of the computer having a soul. A self-described lifelong seeker, he wanted to pursue a doctorate examining how each religion would deal with sentient computers.

“I was seduced by the state of computer science at the time, so I went to Carnegie Mellon,” he says. “It took about two months to conclude that everything I had heard about A.I. was bullshit.”

Feeling a bit deflated, he looked for something else to work on and was given the job of maintaining the local bulletin board system, a sort of Internet variant for group messaging. Borenstein found the concept of electronic mail fascinating, but he thought it might be something he would explore as a hobby rather than a career. Roughly five years into this exploration, his PhD advisor invited him to work on a new distributed computer system the university was building in partnership with IBM known as the Andrew Project.

At the Andrew Project, Borenstein worked with luminaries in the field, including James Gosling, lead designer of the Java programming language, and David Rosenthal, holder of 23 patents and one of the founding scientists at Nvidia. Using both hardware and software components, the project wired the Carnegie Mellon campus and developed computer workstations starting in 1982 in preparation for the day when personal computers would be cheap enough for a critical mass of students to own them.

Borenstein says the Andrew Project lab had a steady stream of visitors, including Steve Jobs. Borenstein primarily worked on the messaging part of the project, and Jobs had … Next Page »

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