Is there a solution? I've thought of one. It probably is impossible but I'm going to put it out there and see what you all say.
The idea is that there should be a cost to sending email. This seems weird for two reasons: when email first came out we all loved it precisely because it was free: adding a cost seems perverse. Second, how on earth could it be made to work?
Well, suppose big organisations, such as Universities, could set up their systems so as to filter incoming emails and check whether the sender was registered. I assume that since filtering already occurs at some level for spam, this should not be impossible. If the sender is not registered, they get a bounce inviting them to open an account. Once they have an account, then a v small charge is made for each email that is delivered. The charge should be adequate to cover the cost of running the filtering and billing operation, but no more.
This could be arranged so that communications within a domain would be free, so it would not save us from mass communications from admin – but given that in my department most of these have recently been about the serious matter of closure of toilets, and even gender reassignment of toilets, perhaps that is as well. I can also envisage institutions have reciprocal arrangements so that all university domains, for instance, would agree not to charge each other. We would also need to be able to set up 'whitelists' of addresses that would be exempt from a charge: in my line of work we use email to communicate with volunteers and organisations who help our research, so we'd have to find a way to indicate that if we initiate the email exchange, the recipient is not charged for replying.
I've been trying to decide whether such a set-up would be good on balance, or whether it would create more problems than it would solve. There is no doubt that it would lead to an initial period of havoc, but it would wipe out spam at a stroke. The fear is that it could also prevent genuine and important messages getting through. Would I miss the opportunity of a lifetime to collaborate with a colleague, to go to a marvellous conference, or to take on an outstanding overseas student? The answer is probably yes, though, of course, if people were really unmotivated or unable to register, there is always snail mail.
Well, this is just an early morning thought, prompted by the daily routine of deleting the mass invitations to meet a sexy lady, deliver keynote at a conference on sludge disposal in China or be the recipient of a huge donation from a distressed oligarch. There must be a better way, but what is it?