If common sense prevails, Mr. Trumpâs 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; theyâre not perfectly secret (nothing is), but theyâre a fortress compared with email.
Yet we should mourn emailâs death as much as we celebrate it; every organizationâs 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 emailâs best tricks is asynchronicity â 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. Goldstoneâs mobile email signature, âThis iPhone speaks many languages,â 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 isnât clear if that took place; in an interview with Sean Hannity, Donald Trump Jr. said he recalled coordinating only through email.)
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 â what sort of numbskull would you have to be to write down, in an email, that youâre offering a foreign governmentâs 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 emailâs allure: Emails from Bill Gates made up the key evidence in the Justice Departmentâs long-running case against Microsoft, and Steve Jobsâs 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, Uberâs 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.âs thread; this is emailâs last hurrah.