James Gleick: Life is different with email

James "Chaos" Gleick talks about the phase-change of life in the online age.

Something happened starting 10 years ago that was really exceptional. The speed of change of technology is different now. It's qualitatively different. It's disturbing. We can't always appreciate that because our memories are unreliable. Our attention spans seem to be shorter. We all feel this.

But something very much like it happened a century ago, when the world suddenly got electricity and telephones, and underwent a sudden and dramatic change in the size and topology of the globe. So, it's happened before…

It's still slightly surprising to people to remember that as recently as 1994 most people not only didn't have e-mail, but they didn't really know what e-mail was, and it didn't occur to them that they were ever going to have it.

I remember it all vividly, because I started an Internet company in the summer of 1993. And I remember talking to my friends about it, and people thought I was nuts.

I would talk to lawyers, and I would say: I think it's possible that in a while, maybe in a few decades, every law firm will be able to send e-mail, just as now they use the fax machine. And my lawyer friends would roll their eyes and humor me.

Every profession operates differently now, because the online world exists. Every profession, and it's still just getting started.