MIME was *easy* compared to spam (was Re: Shuffle those deck chairs!)2004-10-13 16:27:50
The history of complex standards is that it takes time to get them done correctly. Take a look at MIME, one of the standards that you used in the construction of your email message. That effort was the outcome of a huge debate that started in 1990 and didn't get out the door until 1992, and that was an argument amongst a relatively small group of people. So just because MARID didn't finish doesn't mean the IETF is done with spam.
Perhaps it's worth a little more analysis of MIME's success, since it keeps getting held up as a positive example for how we ought to be solving the spam problem. For starters, I think we underestimate Dumb Luck -- the many ways that the stars happened to be aligned just right for MIME's success. Without going into a lot of detail, there was a momentary convergence of needs, interests, and motivations that simply doesn't happen all that often. (Yeah, MIME was like Woodstock. :-)
Still, chance favors the prepared mind, so I'm writing this in the hope that better understanding the MIME story might actually help us be ready for the next harmonic convergence. In the case of MIME the prepared mind belonged to Einar Stefferud, who saw fit to introduce me and Ned -- semi-prepared minds? -- and suggest that we work together on what was then a fairly ill-defined problem. Although Ned and I proved highly compatible, our experience came from vastly different ends of the email universe; between the two of us we were able to comprehend and integrate a significant fraction of the good ideas offered up by what seemed like a whole lot of very smart people (most of whom are still on this mailing list) while satisfying the many constraints imposed by a complex legacy system with non-binary transport. In cartoon summary, Stef kick-started me and Ned, who then devoted several years of our lives to performing what was essentially a nearly-exhaustive iterative design process with the entire interested community, until nearly everyone was satisfied. (And remember: This was back when commerce was forbidden on an Internet we would now consider microscopic. So "nearly everyone" could mean "all but one or two people.")
The contrast to the present situation is stark. First, I believe the spam problem is orders of magnitude more complex than the problems we addressed with MIME. Second, there are way too many of us. I don't think we had more than 100 people active in the entire development of MIME. Today, we instantly have that many people who want to be active on any mailing list we create on the topic of spam. I'm very proud of how hard we worked on MIME, but I don't think any mortal could work hard enough to reproduce our approach for solving spam -- Moore's Law simply does not apply to the amount of communication a human can do. Finally, I'm not sure there's anyone who has yet accumulated enough wisdom about spam to provide the right spark to the process, as Stef did for MIME, although a lot of us are trying hard to get there.
I consider myself an optimist, because I believe that we will make progress against spam, and that there will come a day when you are getting, on average, less spam than you did the year before. I also believe that some day humanity will live in peace under a democratic and pluralistic world government. I'm not sure I'll live to see either of these goals, but that doesn't mean they're not worth working towards. However, I really think a lot of us need to slow down and start planning for a Long Haul. Someday, I fear, people will be getting doctorates in Advanced Spam Studies. We need to be laying the foundations for their future research careers, not looking for a quick fix that simply doesn't exist. -- Nathaniel
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