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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!