The Eureka Moment
On a recent Saturday morning, Dr. E-mail could be found bustling around General Interactive’s spare offices at the top of steep stairs over Sage’s grocery store in Harvard Square, across from the landmark Brattle Theater movie house. Shiva’s full-cheeked face makes him look younger than his 36 years. His shoulder-length loose-hanging black hair and tobacco-hued skin give away his birth in Bombay, as Vellayappa Ayyadurai Shiva.
Outgoing, voluble and distracted, Shiva is a tumbleweed of ideas at once entrepreneurial, intellectual and artistic. He is the author of the 1996 book Arts and the Internet: A Guide to the Revolution, and holds master’s degrees in both visual studies and mechanical engineering from MIT. He’s still working to get his PhD in information theory and cybernetics, however. For now, the “Dr.” of his self-assumed persona is pure marketing.
Shiva’s intial encounter with e-mail came in 1979. A bored high school junior then living in Livingston, N.J., Shiva was asked by a Rutgers professor to help with a computer network linking three hospitals. When he first heard someone say “electronic mail,” Shiva recalls, “I thought it meant current flowing through paper.”
His networking project became a science fair winner, a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and earned Shiva a ticket to MIT in 1981. During his work for a degree in computer science, what came to fascinate Shiva most was pattern recognition, a field of mathematics that looks to draw meaningful information from noisy data, and which is closely allied with artificial intelligence research.
For instance, Shiva helped another Rutgers professor scan brain wave data from 600 sleeping babies for patterns that could show which were at greatest risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At MIT, Shiva analyzed the touch patterns sensed by deaf-blind people who use Tadoma, a language in which the listener spreads her hand lightly across the face of the speaker to recognize words.
After receiving a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab, Shiva was recruited by MIT instructor Frederick Foreman to study patterns in ultrasonic waves sent through materials to map their internal structures. Foreman recalls they spent “12 hours a day” on the project during the late 1980s-but Shiva’s thoughts were on the digital world as much as the physical one. “He had this idea he could use the same techniques for information. He kept saying, ‘I can manipulate information as if it’s a wave.’ And he kept talking about how waves of information and e-mails and graphics going all over the place were going to be the next big thing,” Foreman recalls.
By then, Shiva’s Eureka moment was close at hand. After getting his second master’s in 1990, he helped to critique early Web search engines for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In 1993, he participated in a White House contest for routing e-mail. “I was reading thousands and thousands of e-mail, and realized they are not all that different,” Shiva says. In fact, looking below the surface, e-mail tended to be almost robotically repetitious. “So I said: ‘Maybe they have fundamental properties which could be recognized, like physical matter.’ ”
Shiva worked up algorithms to detect what he concluded were an e-mail’s essential features. He named the software Xiva, and founded a company called Millennium Cybernetics to commercialize the idea. That was in 1994, a time when e-mail was still small potatoes, and no major retailer had made a commitment to the Internet. Even Jeff Bezos was an unknown working from a 25-square-meter office in Seattle; he would not flip the switch to light up Amazon.com until July of the next year.
But when a friend told Shiva that AT&T was spending $10,000 on a Web presence, and needed help with its surprising volume of e-mail, Shiva sought an introduction. No matter how Web commerce unfolded, he figured, big, mainline firms would have to go online and get lots of e-mail. After a pilot demonstration of Xiva-now trademarked EchoMail-AT&T signed in 1996.