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Sysadmin Lust

Noncom and Nostalgia for Email

By Annalee Newitz

THE SYSADMINS at my work do not make 50-80 thousand a year (standard salary for a sysadmin, according to SAGE, a professional organization of Systems and Network Administrators). The systems department doesn't even have the money in its budget to buy industry-standard cat-5 cables for our office, and of course our overwrought sysadmins have had to patch our network together out of what can only be called technological debris.

I believe that I've mentioned before that I'm currently working at a noncom, and so therefore the small amenities that most dotcommies take for granted--such as, for instance, a sysadmin who has access to money, if not wads of time--are like indescribable luxuries to me now. I have fantasies of a highly trained sysadmin charging up to my workstation on a white horse, a leatherman in one hand and a giant IT budget in the other.

I have this fantasy most often when I'm reading my email. Oh, for the help of SOMEBODY TRAINED ENTIRELY IN THE ART OF MAIL SERVERS AND SENDMAIL. I'd give anything--full-service sex, gourmet chocolate, my cat's firstborn kittens. I have sysadmin lust; I swoon over the login "root."

Something crufty in the way my network account was set up keeps me from being able to download my non-work mail through Netscape. I really don't understand why, although I know enough to understand that it has something to do with default settings over which I have no control.

Note to actual sysadmins and the sysadminnish: we're running Novell network software. Do you understand my pain?

So instead of downloading my email like a civilized person, I've had to start checking my considerable amounts of mail from a web-based Yahoo account. Yes, I suppose I should be grateful that A) I can do this, and B) that I actually KNOW I can do this, which makes me more web savvy than large portions of the population.

Like a lot of tech journalists and information fetishists, I'm on several heavily trafficked email lists. I don't like to get digests. I relish quickly browsing through hundreds of subject headers, deleting most of them, but delving into some. Just being forced to go through my mail chronologically makes me feel like I'm vaguely following whatever threads are active on the SFWOW list, and whatever events are being promoted on the Squid List.

On average, I get about 300 emails per day. Many of these emails come with attached files. And after using my "free" Yahoo account for only about two weeks, I began getting messages about how I had reached my 3 MB capacity and should start paying some unholy amount of money simply to have the privilege of getting a few more MB of space so I didn't have to download every damn attachment instantaneously.

It drove me mad. I was filled with tragic nostalgia for email, for the lost early-1990s days of my UC-Berkeley student account on a UNIX machine known as garnet. Ah, the days of PINE and EMACS. Remember ELM?

I yearned for the time before giant email lists, when things like egroups.com were merely a twinkle in some junior high school students' eyes. I cursed HTML; I cursed Windows NT; I cursed everything except that beautiful memory of garnet, the UNIX server I never saw, whose memory never seemed to run out and whose lifespan never extended beyond the days of gopher and lynx. Garnet lived in a simpler time.

I will not go so far as to port my nostalgia to vi. I hate that stupid editor, and it always gave me problems, and that's why I became a writer instead of a coder, OK?

What's bizarre is that my nostalgia for simpler things is really all about a nostalgia for email itself. And that nostalgia isn't about email per se, because email is everywhere. Like all nostalgia, it's finally about longing for a thing that never existed: a universe where every workplace was equipped with adequate, functional technology, and every worker had the resources to perform her job well (as a sysadmin, engineer, editor, whatever).

I long for a world where my email works, where your email works, and where sysadmins sleep quietly the whole night through.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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