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 recently left Apple to start a computer company called NeXT, which was also developing computer workstations for the higher education market.
Jobs was sniffing around the Andrew Project, partly looking for talent to poach. Borenstein says Jobs barely knew what e-mail was at the time, but seeing what the project team had accomplished so far with Andrew Mail inspired him.
Jobs “made decisions quickly and tried to hire the whole team,” Borenstein recalls. “Nobody went. I knew enough about him to know that he’d win every argument.”
Jobs began working on NeXTmail, the e-mail client for his computer’s operating system. NeXTmail eventually evolved into Apple Mail, but it didn’t interoperate with the system Borenstein was building for the Andrew Project, much to his dismay.
At that time, there were no official standards governing e-mail and attachments, and Borenstein says the lack of interoperability between Andrew Mail and NeXTmail inspired him to create some. He was determined to work on the problem of rich e-mail interoperability because he imagined that one day, he’d have some grandkids, and when he did, he wanted to be able to receive pictures of them on his computer. (That wish came to fruition, by the way, when his twin granddaughters were born eight years ago.)
What Borenstein ended up co-designing with Ned Freed was the MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) protocol, an Internet standard for the formation of messages sent online. Prior to the MIME standard, e-mail attachments could only be opened by two people using the same software, rendering them almost useless. As he told the Guardian in 2012, “Our achievement wasn’t figuring out one way of sending an attachment. It was getting 100 other e-mail geeks to agree on the same way of doing it.”
In 1992, Borenstein sent the first functional attachment to the group of 100. It contained a photo of a barbershop quartet he sang in and a recording of the quartet singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Today, he says, e-mail users send out more than a trillion MIME attachments each day. Around that time he talked with Dave Crocker, who urged him to come up with a catchy name for his creation—hence MIME—and he calls that discussion “probably the best 15 minutes of my career.”
If those sound like the words of a cynic, take Borenstein’s trajectory into consideration. In 2018, the world is not always a kind place to vegetarian pacifists who care more about the long-term functionality of the Internet (and the planet, for that matter) than amassing the plaudits or staggering wealth that some of his Silicon Valley peers enjoy.
“I remember being impatient for people to come online so I wouldn’t have to send out paper Christmas letters anymore,” Borenstein muses.
He and his early Internet colleagues imagined that they were creating a utility for the common good that would unite people across vast physical, ideological, and socio-economic distances. Yet the current reality doesn’t look much like those utopian dreams of the 1980s.
Take the repeal of net neutrality, described by the Washington Post as “a sweeping act of deregulation” that dismantles the rules overseeing broadband companies like Comcast and AT&T. The repeal clears the way for broadband providers to sell tiered levels of Internet service, charging more for preferred access, and to slow down or block sites belonging to competitors. For example, a service provider could block access to Netflix or Amazon if it suits their purposes, requiring customers to purchase service plans from multiple providers depending on what websites they want to visit.
Borenstein recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post for Mimecast that imagines what a future without Net neutrality looks like: “January 10, 2024. Today I broke down and got myself a second home Internet service. Our existing Comcast subscription lets us watch Netflix, but we needed a Verizon connection to watch Hulu. It seems absurd to spend $200 per month on a second ISP, but I’m afraid that my marriage might not survive another argument about whether we should have Hulu or Netflix. … There is a silver lining, however: We would never have paid for a second Internet service just for streaming music. … But now with Verizon, we can get Spotify, and it’s wonderful to be able to hear The Beatles again.”
While the picture the blog post paints is grim, Borenstein warns that the eventual reality might be even worse. The U.S. could end up like China, whose government is notorious for blocking websites it doesn’t like, typically for political reasons, behind the so-called Great Firewall. Without net neutrality, huge telecom corporations would similarly decide what we can and can’t see. “People will understand the problem when bad things start happening,” he adds. “My hope is then, we’ll be able to bring net neutrality back.”
Borenstein feels a kinship with people like Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive who seems to be struggling with guilt over the effect his former employer has had on social discourse. Palihapitiya made waves last month as a result of remarks he delivered at a Stanford Business School event: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” Palihapitiya reportedly said.
Borenstein reached out to Palihapitiya, who later walked back his remarks to some degree, and offered to help. Borenstein has yet to get a response.
“There’s a spectrum of naivete when it comes to efforts to improve things,” he notes. “I totally empathize with someone who was building something they thought was just good, only to have it destroy democracy. I used to believe the Internet was incredibly democratizing and would break down barriers, but money has been an absolutely corrupting influence—on the Internet and on me, too.”
After Project Andrew, Borenstein founded First Virtual Holdings in 1994, a company that is often credited with being the first online bank. The company was ahead of its time, unfortunately. (A quaint New York Times article from 1994 describes First Virtual Holding’s goal to “make shopping with a Visa card from a home computer as secure and convenient as using a credit card at a shopping mall.”)
First Virtual Holdings had a good run and almost made it to an IPO, he says, before it eventually started to crater in 1998. Ecommerce giants like eBay and PayPal were still a few years from becoming household names. By 2002, the company had been split in two and acquired by VeriSign and DoubleClick.
First Virtual Holdings’ failure caused a dark night of the soul for Borenstein. He spent the early 2000s in a funk, especially when he thought about the way his early work contrasted with his latest business experience. In the old days, money was the last thing he and his colleagues had been enthusiastic about. He was ready to write the whole industry off.
“The thing that convinced me that, on balance, the Internet might be good was a virtual choir,” he says.
Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir was an online project created by a well-known composer. He invited the public to record and upload videos of themselves singing along to his music, then spliced them together into a single performance. “The one I saw, called ‘Sleep,’ tied all these people from all over the world together, making something beautiful,” Borenstein says. “Five hundred years from now, people won’t remember Jeff Bezos, but they might listen to the virtual choir songs.”
When I ask Borenstein if he has any plans for an encore career after he retires, he says if he decides to pursue one, it likely won’t involve computers or e-mail. He’s working on a book, title TBD, about how modern technologies affect the spiritual quests of human beings.
“When I look at the traditions I was raised with—these evolved over time and came to be useful to people living a certain lifestyle,” he says. “In the span of a generation, people are spending 10-plus hours every day staring at a screen, and you can’t say that doesn’t matter. My book talks about how to live a balanced spiritual life. It’s the exact opposite of cyber-bullying.”
When I ask what he would go back and change if he could, he says there is one thing he remains embarrassed about. Every MIME object has a tag informing users it’s version 1.0 of the software. When it was created, Borenstein thought there would be future versions, but that didn’t happen.
“Seventeen trillion bytes per day wasted [on the tag],” Borenstein laments.
He says if he had to do it all again, he might choose a completely different line of work. But even after all these years, it’s obvious he’s still passionate about technology and innovation—even as the industry monetizing those innovations becomes less and less recognizable to him.
In 2015, Borenstein started another venture, which is temporarily dormant. Led by “three grandfathers with day jobs,” AmplifEye Vision seeks to produce a new generation of digital color-correcting glasses, allowing color-blind people like Borenstein to perceive more shades; the glasses would also enable those without color blindness to see infrared, ultraviolet, or anything else a digital camera is capable of capturing.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, and this semester, University of Michigan students will work on bringing it to market. Borenstein says his fantasy is that one of those eager grad students will be color blind and want to “take over the whole darn thing.” After all, he’s got three grandchildren to entertain in his spare time.
“I’ve become pretty fatalistic,” he says. “I saw a lot of people who worked on the early Internet become disillusioned. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not that surprised by anything. More and more, I think the most useful thing I do is mentor young people.”