Surviving “the Tyranny of E-mail”

Like a plague of locusts, they give us no rest. They gobble our irreplaceable asset: our time. The faster we swat them away, the faster they arrive. Our modern locust plague is email.

Fortunately, I found The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman a week ago at the Harvard Bookstore, one of the few surviving independent bookstores in Cambridge, MA. Alas, the book was discounted to $5.99 — which probably means that it is on remainder. That is a shame, for it is a rich and thoughtful book, mixing history, analysis, outrage, and remedy.

(Photo: Jon Gosier)

The beginning of wisdom, it was said, is to call things by their right names. By that venerable standard, this is a wise book. Freeman doesn’t write ubiquitous mush like, “Of course email has done so much for us. It is just another tool. And tools are neither good nor bad. A knife can spread butter or kill someone. What matters is how the tool is used.” Perhaps because he also lives in London, Freeman doesn’t fall prey to that particularly American myth of technological neutrality. Rather, he says it straight: Email is robbing us of our lives. It is speeding up life and work far beyond what promotes human flourishing (another ancient concept that we have mostly lost). And he says it poetically:

Meanwhile, on flows the e-mail down the screen, like a current with riptides and swirls…You paddle frantically and seem to get nowhere. Checking e-mail on vacation, at night, in the car, at the bus stop, or in the grocery store, as handheld devices have made possible in recent years—and as many people do—is like trying to stick a finger in a dam. The flow just finds a new crack, a new fissure, and before long it’s pouring out again.

(The problem of checking email on vacation is mitigated in America, the only industrialized country with no legally mandated vacation time.)

As I look back on the 27 past years that I’ve had an email address, I shudder to think how much I have let myself be robbed of, how much serious writing I have forgone while typing thousands of short replies, and how much human contact I lost while fending off the electronic locusts.

It’s not only me. Coffee shops, once places to read, write, and people watch, are now filled with, in one of Freeman’s images that stick with me, the “continuous, insect-like patter of typing.” An auto-reply from a colleague at Harvard was revealing about the damage done by email: “I am neither reading nor storing any email, as I am undertaking a number of projects that require my full attention.” (my emphasis) With the email locusts in full flight, only mediocre-attention projects survive the plague.

The Tyranny of E-mail, unlike many books detailing the sad state of the world, offers a substantial and effective set of remedies. Perhaps the most important is not to make more locusts: “Don’t send!” Don’t send an email unless you absolutely have to use that form of communication. Don’t CC or BCC unless you have to. A second remedy is: “Read email only twice a day.” These remedies support each other. I have adopted them, extending the second to reading email once a day or even on alternate days.

Freeman mentions an email autoresponder that sends back:

Due to a technical issue, there is a possibility I may never see your email. If it is important, please call me at xxx xxx-xxxx.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

It is polite and constructive, and it encourages human contact.

My eventual goal is to follow in the footsteps of my old teacher Donald Knuth, whose missive on email Freeman quotes:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

So, if you send an email to me and don’t receive a quick answer, or you receive a polite request to post me a paper letter, see it as progress!

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  1. AaronS says:

    There is an epiphany here for those who will but hear. Indeed, do I REALLY need to see yet another cute picture of someone’s grandchild? another funny video? another “pass this on if you really, really care?

    Facebook is just a newer version of e-mail. It robs us of truly personal time as we (at least some of us) seek to write things that are thoughtful and inspiring…only to get comments that show that it really doesn’t matter.

    At the same time, I ponder just how much of my time has been stolen as I post responses like this. I am reminded of the farmer who finally relented and got an old rotary phone. One day it rang and rang. One of his grandkids said, “Aren’t you going to answer the phone?”

    “No! I got that phone for MY convenience.”

    Maybe we ought to do that, too. It’s about MY convenience…not any one else’s.

    Just a thought. (NOTE TO SELF: You can never get the time back that you spent writing this…and it almost certainly doesn’t matter to anyone but yourself.)

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 4
  2. DanSanto says:

    I wonder how much this is a generational thing. Knuth is over 70, and unless he is a truly bizarre specimen of his generation, handles electronic communication in ways that are weird to people in the under-30 or even under-40 crowd.

    When I read Knuth’s quote about 15 years of email being plenty for one lifetime, my initial reaction, with which I still agree upon reflection was:

    “What? How is 15 years of talking with friends plenty for one lifetime?”

    For me and most of my family, friends, and workplace colleagues, email is communication with friends, it’s keeping in touch with people, it is maintaining social connections. The statement that 15 years of email being plenty for one lifetime translates directly as “15 years of talking with friends…”

    Yes, it is also used for work, but you have to talk with people at work – just because talking with people at work can be time-wasteful doesn’t mean that we should stop talking at all. I have several work colleagues who make me cringe every time they walk past because there’s the serious risk that they will stop to talk and not leave for 45 minutes. Having emails spewing into one’s inbox is the same thing.

    One learns to cope with that annoying guy who won’t shut up and won’t leave just like the spewing email. It’s not hard. What one shouldn’t do is to completely stop talking with people.

    It seems that he has somehow adopted the view that email is a work/tasking/job/imposition. It’s not – it’s talking with friends, it is catching up with family, it is hearing from your favorite cousin who is living in New Zealand at the moment.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 5
    • Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

      Although my first reaction is to disagree, because I actually like getting emails from real people, after thinking about it for a moment I have to agree that email has some serious downsides. I write for a fairly big website, and that means I get a good deal of PR email. Most of it not at all related to what I write about. Organizational email from work is also pretty annoying at times, although not as bad as when I used to work at a larger organization. And too much back and forth is a waste of time, phones and IM exist for a reason.

      On the other hand, the phone is REALLY useless 90% of the time these days. Back before everyone had a cell phone and voicemail, it was actually possible to reach people. Not anymore. And don’t even get me started on calling big organizations with their demonic voice “response” systems. And phonecalls interrupt your work, email doesn’t have to if you don’t let it.

      You can email me at iljitsch@muada.com

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
    • TheMarketMan says:

      This is exactly right. I’m a college professor and there is a divide between the older and younger professors. (I’m in the younger group)

      Several older gentlemen in my department constantly complain about the hundreds of emails per day, and how they can’t do anything but answer emails. I get most of the same emails and rarely spend more than 15 minutes per day replying to emails, and only another 20 minutes per day reading work-related email. (I’ve measured this several times over the years – I have more than a few quirks in this regard.)

      These particular people seem to feel a compulsion to take part in every email that goes around the department, whether it affects them or not. We have 75-120 emails sent per day from the professors or TAs in our department to everyone (we’re a small department that has a habit of just sending to everyone – 22 people). The vast majority of these only truly involve three or four people, and yet there are several people, all of whom happen to be over 50, who seem to put in some sort of commentary on EVERY SINGLE EMAIL CHAIN.

      Each of those people regularly complain about having so much email that they can’t get anything else done.

      I don’t think I have ever complained about the number of emails I deal with, and I can’t remember an instance of any of my colleagues under 50 complaining. Maybe the occasional gripe about a particularly heavy email day, but never the constant gripe of the older people in my department.

      It’s a generational gap, not a fundamental problem with the medium of communication.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 3
    • Pshrnk says:

      While it is true you are communicating with friends be email, you are definitely not “TALKING” with them. How sad that so many young folks do not know the difference.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7
      • Sean says:

        How sad that some people are so limited that they can only communicate with their mouths.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3
      • TimB says:

        Agreed. And how sad is it that someone equates real communication with spending no more than 15 minutes responding to hundreds of emails? How much, if any, actual thought could possibly have taken place at an average of no more than 7.5 seconds per reply (15 minutes / a minimum of 200 e-mails)?

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
      • Enter your name... says:

        TimB, the point being made here is that for the vast majority of those 200 messages, he doesn’t need to reply at all. He probably doesn’t even need to read more than the subject line and the sender’s name for half of them. It shouldn’t take him more than one second to look at a message and think, “Meeting announcement for committee I’m not on: Delete”. That leaves him plenty of time to reply to the small number of messages that actually affect him.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  3. Curtis says:

    “that particularly American myth of technological neutrality.”

    Is it a particularly American myth? I don’t consider it a myth (Especially not when it comes to email), and I’m not American…

    Anyway, it doesn’t seem like the arguments against email couldn’t be applied to the Internet as a whole (Do we know for sure that all the coffee shop insect-men are checking their email and doing nothing else? Do we think that it’s only email that eats up people’s computer time?) and really, if it’s ‘necessary’ for someone to check their email ‘on vacation, at night, in the car, at the bus stop, or in the grocery store’ then they either have a crazy-intense job and/or social life, or they are some kind of addict.

    The Internet is a communications system. Complaining about it being ‘too fast for humanity to flourish’ sounds ludicrous to me, and singling out email is equally ridiculous as far as I can see. If someone really believes that’s true, then they should ditch email and send snail mail. People will read it. They may even respond in kind rather than phoning or texting or emailing or messaging on Facebook or through an IM client. They might even hire a sky-writer or buy some ad time on the radio. It depends on what’s in the letter. But that’s the sender’s responsibility, isn’t it?

    “I shudder to think how much I have let myself be robbed of”

    You have robbed yourself.

    “how much serious writing I have forgone while typing thousands of short replies, and how much human contact I lost while fending off the electronic locusts.”

    That’s not the emails’ fault, and I wonder if, without email, people would only engage in ‘a few’ ‘serious’ ‘long’ replies in contexts where all the human contact is ‘real.’ Do people talk on the phone or in the coffee shop about serious things for hours each day?

    Also, only ‘assholes’ go to coffee shops anyway, it’s always been like that, I don’t see how that’s an argument against email.

    “I am neither reading nor storing any email, as I am undertaking a number of projects that require my full attention.”

    That is polite, but also stupid. When I read this, it translates as ‘I cannot organise or prioritise my inbox.’

    “Don’t send an email unless you absolutely have to use that form of communication. Don’t CC or BCC unless you have to. A second remedy is: “Read email only twice a day.” ”

    As usual, common sense is apparently not common enough. I agree with these rules, but because I like to pretend I am not completely retarded, I have been following basically the same rules for as long as I’ve used email (a bit less than 27 years but close).

    I get that some people hate email and don’t want to use it (Or at least minimise its use). But I can’t think of anything specific to email that singles it out as a unique problem.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1
  4. Joel Upchurch says:

    What I try to do is put enough information in the title of the e-mail to let people decide if they want to read it without opening it. What I dislike are emails with vague titles, where I have to waste time opening the email to figure out if it has something that I care about.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  5. Jim In Frankfort says:

    No doubt e-mail intrudes on many aspects of our lives, but there are many other ways in which e-mail vastly improves and simplifies our lives. I have great sympathy for anyone who feels like they are running a losing race to keep up with e-mail … and I have no patience or interest in people who feel e-mail serves no useful purpose.
    Granted everyone has the right to request a response via a medium other than e-mail, however they also run the risk of being left behind because no bothers to oblige. If they don’t have time for e-mail is it reasonable to expect that everyone else has time for a phone call or snail mail?
    Every day I am amazed at how many little issues I solve via e-mail while in the midst of playing phone tag with several colleagues.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
  6. Oleg S says:

    The problem, really, is not with e-mail per se. The problem is with the changed expectations that e-mail (and other electronic communications) have brought about. I used to be able to turn off my phone and disappear from the face of the world. Not any more. Of course, I can stop answering e-mail. Just like I can kick out unwelcome visitors from my office. But as a polite person, I generally don’t. I can ignore a message from my boss that comes late at night on Saturday. Sure, I can. But do I want to? Occasionally, but not too often. The expectations of colleagues, customers, and, yes, friends came are such that we are on call 24/7. Now, we cannot change our behavior individually. We can only do it all together.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  7. James says:

    In truth, my experience has been just the opposite: email has to a considerable extent freed me from the tyranny of snail mail and telephone calls. Perhaps my circle of friends & colleagues is more considerate than usual, but the irrelevant emails are not so many that I can’t delete them in probably less time than it takes to go to my physical mailbox, return to the house, and filter the occasional worthwhile communication from the mound of junk*. The relevant ones I can answer in my own good time (but usually fairly quickly), after having given them more considered thought than I would a phone call that interrupted some other train of thought.

    *Indeed, I’m hoping for the day when email (and a good spam filter) can free me completely from the incoming tide of junk. Someday I might actually be able to use my kitchen table as a place to eat, rather than a de facto filing system and paper recycling bin.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  8. Heather says:

    “Hi, I would like for you to drop everything you are doing at a moment’s notice and focus all of your attention on something that I deem worthy. I will spend a couple minutes on pleasantries, several minutes on an explanation that should have only taken 10 seconds, a few minutes thanking you, and several more minutes re-explaining the issue that we have resolved and telling you my feelings/motivations/justifications for interrupting your day. I will then spend a minute or so on closing remarks.

    “If you happen to not accept being interrupted by me, then I will leave you a brief yet vague message asking you to interrupt my focus whenever you get a chance.”

    Yes, I deal with older faculty who demand the “personal touch” and so several times a week I spend 20 minutes on the phone to resolve what is at most a syntax issue in their documents.

    In retrospect it’s honestly amazing that for several decades it was considered polite to just call someone out of the blue and demand their attention regardless of whatever they were doing with no hint or warning. You don’t show up at someone’s door with no warning, expecting them to drop everything and focus on you. It’s not much better to expect someone drop what they are doing to talk to you on the phone. That’s why I *never* call someone out of the blue. I only call when they are expecting my call – we had previously agreed that I would call around a certain time, or we had set up the call either by text or email.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2
    • John says:

      I wish I could like this twice. The whole topic is a perpetual pet peeve of mine. Email is more efficient for nearly all communications, it is also more polite. In those few cases where a very high level of interaction is needed, ie. the decision tree is very “bushy” or when more or less unguided social interaction is the goal, a phone call is better, but it should be scheduled not an arbitrary interruption.

      I’m not sure if I buy the generational argument. I know of boomers who agree with me and college students who are perpetually on the phone.

      On the other hand, there does seem to be a correlation between the “phone & face” fans and the self-centered, back slapping, fast talking, behavior stereotypically associated with sales people. When I email a company asking for a product spec sheet, or a price on a particular product, etc. and am answered, with “Thanks for your email, please call me at this number.” I drop the subject and do no further business with that company.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2