Drunk at the keyboard?

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes over the last couple of weeks trolling tech blogs or cocktail lounges has probably heard about Mail Goggles, a new feature on Google’s Gmail programme that is intended to help stamp out a scourge that few knew existed: late-night drunken e-mailing.

The experimental programme requires any user who enables the function to perform five simple math problems in 60 seconds before sending e-mails between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekends. That time frame apparently corresponds to the gap between cocktail No. 1 and cocktail No. 4, when tapping out an e-mail message to an ex or a co-worker can seem like the equivalent of bungee jumping without a cord.

Mail Goggles is not the first case of a technology developed to keep people from endangering themselves or others with the machinery of daily life after they have had a few. For years, judges have ordered drunken-driving offenders to install computerized breath-analyzers linked to their car’s ignition system to prevent them from starting their vehicles when intoxicated.

But as the first sobriety checkpoint on what used to be called the information superhighway, the Mail Goggles programme also raises a larger question: In an age when so much of our routine communication is accomplished with our fingertips, are we becoming so tethered to our keyboards that we really need the technological equivalent of trigger locks on firearms?

In interviews with people who confessed to imbibing and typing at the same time — sometimes with regrettable consequences — the answer seems to be yes.

Jim David, a comedian who lives in Manhattan, said he wished he had Mail Goggles one night when he was “looped” and sent an e-mail message to a religious organization, “saying something like, ‘you people are directly responsible for gays everywhere getting beaten,'” he recalled in an e-mail message.

“I received a response from their legal department that wanted to know specific information as to exactly how I knew they were responsible, that these were very serious charges, and that I should receive a phone call from the FBI soon,” David said. “I hit ‘delete’ faster than lightning and took an Ambien.”

Indeed, the Mail Goggles programme itself was born of embarrassment. A Gmail engineer named Jon Perlow wrote the programme after sending his share of regrettable late-night missives, including a plea to rekindle a relationship with an old girlfriend, he wrote on the company’s Gmail blog. “We’ve all been there before, unfortunately,” said Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. So-called drunk dialing may be as old as the telephone itself, but now, he said, the edge of the abyss is much closer in an era when so many people carry personal digital assistants containing hundreds of contact numbers — including clients, work adversaries and bosses — everywhere, including bars and parties.

And e-mail messages can be particularly potent because they constitute what social scientists call “asynchronous” communication, meaning that exchanges between people do not happen in real time, unlike face-to-face or telephone conversations. People can respond to work-related messages hours after they leave the office — a risky proposition if they happen to log on after stumbling home from happy hour.

The delay in response time means that people have lots of time to shape a response to achieve maximum impact, he said. “If you have eight hours of bar time to think of all the bad things you can come up with, this becomes uniquely damaging,” Bailenson said.

Text-based communication and alcohol are a potent mix in part because people already tend to be more candid online than they are in person, even before they loosen their inhibitions with a drink, said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“Research suggests that for some people, the use of computers or other gadgets creates some emotional distancing from the person they are addressing,” Rainie said in an e-mail message. The distance, in other words, makes them feel safe — flirting becomes more flirtatious; insults become more insulting.

The latter was the case with one 23-year-old record producer in Manhattan who recalled a drunken text-message mishap on a recent trip to his former college. The producer, who declined to be identified, said he had picked up an undergraduate woman while intoxicated and had accompanied her back to her apartment. But sitting in her kitchen at 4 a.m., he said, he started to have second thoughts. So while she was in the room, he tapped out a message to a friend’s iPhone: “Eww Saratoga, what am I thinking? I can def. do better then this … can you drive my car and get me out of here?”

Seconds later, her telephone buzzed. He had accidentally sent the message to her, not his friend, the producer said.

Months later, after a few more romantic misadventures with her, “We had a long talk, and I apologized,” he said. “I now write songs about getting my life together.”

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