What We Lose When the World Moves On From Email

If common sense prevails, Mr. Trump’s email thread may serve as the final nail in the coffin of email as the universal office communicator. People in business and politics are already moving on to other methods, from cloud-based business tools like Slack to apps like Signal, which promise the discretion of a spymaster. These tools allow for auto-deletion and encryption; they’re not perfectly secret (nothing is), but they’re a fortress compared with email.


The release this week of Donald Trump Jr.’s email chain with the publicist Rob Goldstone underlined the importance of moving to a more secure form of communication.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Yet we should mourn email’s death as much as we celebrate it; every organization’s gain in privacy is bound to result in a loss of public transparency.

The Trump emails show exactly why. Both Mr. Trump and Rob Goldstone, an entertainment publicist who had a relationship with the Trump Organization, understood the sensitivity of their conversation. Mr. Goldstone actually noted the sensitivity a couple of times in the email thread.

One of email’s best tricks is asynchronicity — you can send an email even if your recipient is away, unlike a phone call. But in this instance both parties appeared available to talk in real time; several of the missives were sent within minutes of each other. And not only that, they often both used iPhones. (Brace yourself: Mr. Goldstone’s mobile email signature, “This iPhone speaks many languages,” is destined to become an unbearable meme.)

In other words, they could both have clicked one app over and hashed all this out in a phone call, which would have been faster and left almost no trace. (They did suggest holding a phone call, but it isn’t clear if that took place.)

But, no. Despite the sensitivity, email offered something irresistible to the participants. It was easy and it was there, and it felt secret at the time. Looking at the chain now, you might marvel at the brazenness of their conversation — what sort of numbskull would you have to be to write down, in an email, that you’re offering a foreign government’s help with a presidential campaign?

But that is often the case with email. More technically sophisticated men than Mr. Goldstone and Mr. Trump have fallen for email’s allure: Emails from Bill Gates made up the key evidence in the Justice Department’s long-running case against Microsoft, and Steve Jobs’s audacious emails came back to haunt Apple in several legal proceedings. Email undid Enron and played a small part in the recent fall of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s former chief executive.

And those are just the famous cases. Email evidence has become a routine linchpin of white-collar criminal prosecution, because everything anyone has ever thought is likely to be contained in email.

Not for long. Savor Don Jr.’s thread; this is email’s last hurrah.

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