I made a mistake a few months ago. Yes, I know, shocking revelations and all. I hope you don't think any less of me for it.
Before you start to think I'm making fun of poor, poor Bill Clinton here, allow me to raise the tone. The mistake I made has to do with Internet e-mail. A colleague of mine, whom I will not name for fear of embarrassing him, encouraged me to join a service called "SixDegrees".
The idea of this service is that eventually oodles and bajillions of people will be connected to it, and they'll all be able to share in each other's knowledge, skills and accumulated wisdom. If you don't know something, chances are you know somebody who does; and if you don't you know somebody who knows somebody who does. And on it goes. Ultimately, you create a global wired village, in which we're all equals, living in a cyber-community of mutual respect and understanding. Cue He's Got The Whole World In His Hands and fade to black.
At first, I was not keen, and I said so. "Paul," I said, "this simply will not work. It will be yet another stupid Internet novelty that will die a death within months. What's more, you and everyone you sign up to it will be left with a legacy of unwanted e-mail."
He was determined that I should join, since he'd apparently managed to sign up several dozen unwitting victims already. He challenged me to meet his number of contacts, but I didn't want to subject my friends, acquaintances and family members to such unadulterated rubbish. "You may be the channel director around here," I said, "but you can't make me annoy everyone I know."
Eventually he broke down my resolve. I admit it, I'm weak. I gave in despite my deepest convictions against junk e-mail. Let he who is without sin cast the first spam.
I signed up five people I know, and SixDegrees then hassled them to confirm their memberships. Mostly, they phoned me and asked if I had lost my mind signing them up, and I was then able (on the sly) to encourage them to throw away the e-mail and never think of it again.
But two of them signed up. Why? I don't know. Why anyone would volunteer to get unsolicited e-mail from strangers is quite beyond me. Now I have three people in my "first degree" (including the anonymous colleague) and 30-odd in my "second degree", people who don't know me but who know people I know.
Almost every day I receive an e-mail from one of these "second degree" people. I have discovered an important thing: I don't know them for a reason.
Their interests and concerns are so far removed from mine, it's difficult to believe we belong to the same genus. They swear, they make racist jokes, they ask questions I really really really don't want to know the answers to. And I'm into some pretty weird stuff myself.
In short, I wish I could get myself removed from the service, but it doesn't seem possible. And today I received a message telling me that the service will be extended so that people can send e-mails to members as many as 22 degrees of separation away from them. This is rapidly approaching my most hideous visions of what Hell must be like.
Think about it: imagine somebody you really don't like to hear from. Your annoying brother-in-law's irritating cousin with the bottle cap collection, for instance. Now think of the sort of person that would annoy him. An ex-girlfriend who disagrees with him on the origins of the gold-coloured alloy used by Tooheys from 1976 to 1981, for instance. Now imagine getting endless e-mails from her on the subject. Welcome to my world.
I have only myself to blame. And, of course, the colleague who remains nameless. Let's call him Mr Sugar, shall we?
If I'm lucky, someone will send some kind of debilitating e-mail terrorist thingy to the entire SixDegrees network, that will only affect those who actually open and read these messages. They deserve what they get. Or maybe the whole thing will collapse under the weight of its irrelevance.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Y2K whatever-it-is will bring the thing to a screeching halt. At the time of writing, I have only 471 more days to wait for that joyous outcome.
With my luck, they've already thought of it.
(Disclaimer: this column should not be taken as an incitement to commit acts of electronic vandalism against the Internet community. I don't think you will, but I gotta be sure.)