You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail, And an Invitation to a Letter

Letter paper, with ink pen and ink bottleWhen’s the last time you took a day off from e-mail?  How about an evening, or even an hour?  How many times a day do you click on the In box?  Do you feel the urge even now?

If you’re an average worker bee, you get upwards of 200 e-mails a day, spending 40% of your work day opening, answering, forwarding, and deleting; and your work day gets longer and longer.  The most diligent worker bees head for their In Box well before breakfast and take their iPhones to bed.

Is this good for us?   Is it fun?

Or as John Freeman asks in The Tyranny of E-Mail, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

That’s a question to give one pause.  And The Tyranny of E-Mail suggests we need one.  A great big “wait a minute!” while we ask, “E-mail, what is it good for?”

Well, it’s good for a lot of things, as we all know.  But as its speed keeps increasing, as our In boxes overflow, as our attention shatters into fragments, as our work day eats up more of our waking hours, as this rolling electronic to-do list keeps the horizon of completion ever on the move, we find ourselves in a “strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment” where the party never, ever ends.  And it’s least fun party on the planet, because all the ravers are sitting alone in front of their techno-screens.   No dancing allowed.

This is John Freeman’s argument, or part of it, and as soon as I read it, I knew he was my kind of thinker.  He’s no technophobe, no luddite.  He simply asks whether “there is a way we can slow (e-mail) down, so we can make the best of it while retaining a foot-hold in the real-world commons.”

You know, the real-world, physical commons of face-to-face interaction: the theater, post office, town square, meeting hall, bowling alley, voting precinct, bank, bookstore, shopping street, park.  Or the café, where we sit in conversation with a colleague or a friend,  and the social cues of expression, inflection and bodily presence help us interpret meaning and tone.  Where the sheer physical presence of our friend brings us sensory pleasure.

All these places and interactions give us what e-mail does not: the physical presence of others in the commons of civic and social life, a place filled with reminders of “the importance of sharing resources, of working together, of balancing our own needs with those of others.”

Being tied all day (and night) to e-mail also removes us from that commons of the natural world, the one we share with other species, and whose resources we depend on for life.  The one our bodies belong to, with their physical limits and hunger for the sensual pleasures of the world.

Since reading The Tyranny of E-Mail, I’ve added these words to all my messages: “I observe e-mail free evenings and weekends, and check only twice a day.  If your message is urgent, please call me.”

Mostly, I’ve stuck to it.  I’ve also stopped engaging in complex e-mail discussions with multiple participants; stopped sending one-word e-mails like “thanks,” or “okay”; started sending short messages entirely in the subject line, adding “no other message” at the end; and started to keep a list of emails I need to send or respond to—then sending and responding during my designated e-mail times; I no longer check my e-mail at breakfast or before bed.  I make two-minute phone calls instead of sending e-mails back and forth all day trying to set up a meeting.  And I have John Freeman to thank for helping me set myself free.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I received two hand-written letters from friends this week.  Each brought with it the physical pleasure of paper, the trace of human presence in uniquely handwritten words, and the feeling of distance and time that each letter has traveled.  The letters have body, texture, presence.

So here’s my invitation: I will send a hand-written letter to the first ten of you who send me your mailing address.  And because it’s often useful, go ahead and send it by e-mail: tracyseeley (at) rocketmail (dot) com.  Let me know what it’s like to get real mail.

Today’s link: The Tyranny of E-Mail.


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18 Responses to “You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail, And an Invitation to a Letter”

  1. Richard Gilbert Says:

    This is great. I love this especially: “Being tied all day (and night) to e-mail also removes us from that commons of the natural world, the one we share with other species, and whose resources we depend on for life. The one our bodies belong to, with their physical limits and hunger for the sensual pleasures of the world.”

    This is true of many things. In winter I love working out inside on treadmill or bike and reading while I do it, but it’s so clear that outside exercise is also what’s good for the soul. In other words, humans need an unmediated environment at least occasionally. Our homes, offices, and leisure spaces are buffered, wired, far removed from the natural world in which we evolved. Without it, we run too hot.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I agree, Richard. As animal bodies, we need the full, three-dimensional world, the one that calls to us even when we’re not listening. Glad you get outside~ I’m about to go there myself. Cheers!

  2. john latham Says:

    As an employee and general virtual person, I can’t escape from email whether I want to or not. I vaguely remember what life was like before I became so trapped, but I have so many other things to feel nostalgic about, freedom from my email isn’t anywhere top of the list. A thought-provoking post yet again though- but don’t worry I won’t be sending in a postal address! Airmail would be far too costly.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I’m more than happy to pay for postage if you’d like a letter. Think what it would be for a handwritten message to break through the wall of your virtual day.

  3. Bob Root Says:

    Tracy, I’ve been trying to start the day working on whatever seems like a priority and only checking in on my email after a late breakfast. I teach online and try to keep physical office hours, maybe checking the class site late in the morning and right before supper. As much as I can I try not to check the class on the weekends. Someone told me once that the computer he writes on isn’t connected to the internet, so he has to physically leave the room and go somewhere else in the house to use the one that is, instead of flipping away in the middle of something. I like that plan, even if it keeps me from reading a good blog like yours on the spur of the moment.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Bob ~ I’m hearing from a lot of colleagues that they do similar things to unchain themselves from the machine. I’ve recently acquired a 1941 portable Royal typewriter, so am about to give truly unplugged writing a go. It’s been a long, long time since I clacked away like that, and I suspect that composing on a computer has really changed the way I think and write. I’ll keep you posted.

      BTW, I even appreciate your patience in getting to my blog during designated online hours. Bravo!

  4. Annick Says:

    “I observe e-mail free evenings and weekends, and check only twice a day. If your message is urgent, please call me.”

    I think you could delete the last part of it – no message (in our world) seems urgent enough to me to require that it needs to be answered on evenings/ weekends or cannot wait for the two times during the day that you do check your e-mail on weekdays. Just a thought…

  5. Sandy Castro Says:

    Dear Dr.Seeley,
    I Still have your lovely hand written note that accompanied Thom Gunn poetry book.I will always cherish both.With love,Sandy

  6. Julia Says:

    I love this posting and email free time, too. I am glad I don’t have email on my phone for this exact reason. I recently wrote a handwritten note (then blogged about it–lol) because it was a friend from another era. I so hope I made it in the top 10 to receive one of your handwritten letters, because I honestly can’t remember when I received my last one! Plus I promise to send one back! (off to email now…)

  7. Kristi Says:

    I spend far too much time in the electroniverse, and picked up “The Tyranny of Email” at the library this week. I’m a little disappointed with the focus on e-mail, when my own bigger problems are Facebook and Twitter (and I know lots of folks hooked on texting) but of course what he says can be applied to other electronic forms of communication. I’m looking forward to applying his suggestions to my own electronic communications in some way, and I hope to get a letter from you soon (and write a few letters of my own to friends old and new!)

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      HI Kristi, Nicholas Carr’s book *The Shallows* might appeal to you ~ it focuses on the whole shebang, though I don’t recall him offering a “how-to” section on cutting back our addicitions. You might try downloading the software program Freedom, which allows you to block yourself from using the Internet for a length of time you specify. I find that useful.

      In the meantime, watch your mail box!

  8. Joe LaGuardia Says:

    Great post just in time for Lent.
    I started a “computer covenant” with my wife because I was spending so much time on the computer during the evenings, mostly using Facebook, reading blogs, etc.

    Now I only go on about three times a week; the rest I do at work (most of my comp time is for work). Rolling back my screen time has brought some anxiety, but has taught me patience. It’s also reminded me that the world won’t end if I don’t respond to someone’s email or PM within the hour.


    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I’m finding the same thing, Joe ~ the world doesn’t end when we spend time away from the screen. In fact, the world gets better and richer when I do. Here’s to living in the 3-dimensional, 5-senses world of face-to-face human interaction. Cheers!

  9. shirleyhs Says:

    I took a meditation class (online, ironically) that offered a recipe for how to make sure to reserve time for what is important to you. The formula is this” RPM. Rise, Pee, Meditate.

    Substitute write or exercise or make breakfast. But probably not do email or Twitter, or Facebook.

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