Armageddon in your in-basket

outlook in basket II.bmp

Every morning I turn on my computer, and start up Outlook. My emails come ambling in, one by one, a burlesque parade ground, soldiers presenting themselves for inspection.

I watch them with the usual combination of anticipation and unhappiness. (Oh, there’s someone I was hoping to hear from. Oh, not him again.)

Naturally, there is lot’s of spam. I have grown fond of some of this. I like, but of course no longer read, the ones from Ph.D.s in Africa inviting me to help liberate a vast fortune held in escrow. I like, but no longer read, the ones that come with imaginative subject headings. “Solipsism” by Burgos sounds promising and turns out to be a filter for cable TV. (Naturally, if I were a solipsist, I wouldn’t want to filter my TV. I would embrace every channel as an expression of my endless creativity. Yes, even Ronco’s Ron Popeil. And wouldn’t he take an amazing imagination?)

The emails that really give me pause are, naturally, the viruses intercepted by Norton. Norton makes a great, irritating, show of its usefulness by halting the parade and insisting that I “sign off” on the offending email. But I am grateful for this “inspection of the troops.” Plainly, the parade ground has one or two anarchists and I am happy to have them rooted out.

This morning I fell to thinking about what the parade ground is going to look like in 30 years.

As we know, China and India represent something like 2.4 billion people. Many of these people do not participate in a sophisticated educational system.

For instance, half the women of the Northwestern provinces of China are illiterate.

And in the case of India:

About one third of all Indian children are out of school. In the large north Indian states, which account for over 40 per cent of the country’s population, the proportion of out-of-school children in the 6-14 age group is as high as 41 per cent, rising to 54 per cent among female children.

This is a tragic waste. This is hundreds of millions of people. With education enfranchisement, many thousands of them would rise to academic, industrial and cultural greatness. Or, to put this more concretely, trapped in that mass of humanity are literally thousands of would-be Nobel prize winners, scientists, and entrepreneurs.

The good news is that India and China are developing at a furious pace. Some of their new wealth will be invested in education and eventually some of that talent will come “on-line.” Indeed, once India and China are fully up to speed, the West will no longer be fretting about “outsourcing.” We will be grateful for our narrowing share of insourcing.

Back to my in-basket. What happens when education participation equips hundreds of thousands of people with the ability to produce viruses? (Let’s be clear: this is not a xenophobic insinuation that China and India will produce an unusually high number of virus generators. Merely, their own share. To rework Freud’s famous title, I am assuming only that all cultures are equally responsive to the problem of “education and its discontents.”

It would be interesting to “run the numbers” here. We would need to calculate: the number of people who will have full educational participation, drilling down to those smart enough to get a higher education, to those who take up programming of some, even rudimentary, kind, and finally to those inclined to use this knowledge for malevolent, virus generating purposes.

It’s a lot of people, people. By my calculations, in the year 2034, it will take me roughly 7 hours every day to empty my in-basket, and I will be struck by a virus every 14 minutes and by a Norton-avoiding virus every 23 days.

Happy thoughts for a Friday.


Anon. n.d. Capacity building for Rural Women’s participation in sustainable development in five provinces in Northwest China.

Drèze, Jean and Geeta Gandhi Kingdon. 1999. School Participation in Rural India. Centre for Development Economics (Delhi School of Economics) & Institute for Economics and Statistics (University of Oxford). This Draft: August 1999.