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.