If only it was only an email nightmare

This month marks twenty years since the Gifford-Jones newspaper column became accompanied by a “medical update” sent by email to subscribing readers. In early February 2003, the column printed in newspapers was titled, “My E-Mail Nightmare”. It began like this:

My daughter said, “Dad don’t do it. You don’t need the headaches. Just write your column.” My three sons cautioned, “You have no conception of what you’re getting into. There will be loads of technical problems. Stick to your column.” Well I didn’t take their counsel and they were right. Agreeing to provide readers with free medical updates by E-mail has given me E-mailitis. The response was massive, a bloody nightmare. And I keep hearing voices “don’t do it.”

It’s a wrinkle in time to read that column now. And yet, so relatable.

In 2003, we were a 79-year-old medical doctor and journalist and a 34-year-old World Banker. Back then, we were grappling with the “how to” of email distribution lists. And the youngsters in tech jobs were running circles around us.

The column from 2003 discussed spinal stenosis. The email distribution triggered a flood of responses from readers asking for more information. “It seemed like everyone had spinal stenosis.”

Others wanted medical advice on a variety of conditions. More had seen several doctors without getting help and wanted a Gifford-Jones opinion. But no good doctor will diagnose or treat diseases by email.

Today, what has changed? Weren’t communication technologies supposed to make our lives easier?

The futurist Arthur C. Clark claimed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But we find only more headaches in email managed by mailchimps. Websites and webinars involve hostgators, geekpowers, and something called godaddy.

We branched into social media, which is decidedly not for novices. Our efforts at an RSS feed, which stands for “really simple syndication” has been the biggest headache of them all!

Is all this effort to communicate worth it? Were we better off with the limitations of ink on newsprint? One of the most influential thinkers and writers of the 20th century, Gertrude Stein lamented, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

Now we have sophisticated computer programs called chatbots. ChatGPT, released in November 2022, uses written inputs to produce human-like responses. It can write poetry in any style and create original jokes. Educators are alarmed it can write essays with ease. If you are lonely, it can be a companion to talk to. We didn’t ask it to write this column, but it could probably offer a good one given all the past columns it can read in a flash on our website!

By January, ChatGPT had over 100 million users. In another twenty years from now, we wonder what kinds of headaches these advances will cause. Looking on the bright side, maybe there will be a cure for the common headache. But we doubt it.

For now, we continue to write this column the traditional way: once a week, for syndication in newspapers, in print and online. We email it to editors – a technology blessing. For years, Mrs. Gifford-Jones trudged weekly to the post office with a stack of envelops to mail the article to editors. The blessings also to her!

Happy 20th anniversary to our “no nonsense health” e-newsletter, sent out on Tuesdays to those who have signed up on our website. Dare we ask what readers think? Let us know!

We have another monumental benchmark at the end of this month, when one of us will start his 100th trip around the sun. Sign-up at www.docgiff.com to receive our weekly e-newsletter. For comments, contact-us@docgiff.com. Follow us on Instagram @docgiff and @diana_gifford_jones