FreTyra 10-04-054

The Tyranny of E-Mail

 The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox


John Freeman

Scribner, 2009, 244 pp.   ISBN 978-1-4165-7673-0


Freeman is a writer and book critic who has written for numerous national publications.  He takes us on an entertaining look at correspondence through the ages and shows how we got here from there.  The flood of email messages is ceaseless.  He tries to slow things down for a moment and help us see the enormous shift in time and space caused by email.  He begs us to be more selective, nuanced, and sociable in our communications.


“No man can be turned into a permanent machine….”  Mahatma Gandhi


The average office worker sends and receives two hundred e-mails a day.  This is destroying our ability to be productive.  “Email has made us a workforce of reactors, racing to keep up with a treadmill pace that is bound for burnout and breakdown and profound anger.” (6)  Email has reoriented time.  Everything must be attended to. 


“Had there been stretched across the Continent yesterday a line of clocks extending from the extreme eastern point of Maine to the extreme western position on the Pacific coast, and had each clock sounded an alarm at the hour noon, local time, there would have been a continuous ringing from the east to the west lasting for 3 ¼ hours.  At noon today, there will undoubtedly be confusion.”  –The New York Times, 1883 (p. 61)


The myriad of time zones reinforced the nature and importance of distance; the context of life was local.  Most of the rest of the world was truly elsewhere.  “This was not a confusing experience until two of the nineteenth century’s most powerful technological forces, the railroad and the telegram, combined.” (66)  Adjusting to a frame of reference created by electronic communication was a vast change.  It helped create a sense of nationality. (67) 


“Our desire to outstrip Time has been fatal to more things than love.  We have minimized and condensed our emotions… We have destroyed the memory of yesterday with the worries of tomorrow… We do not feel and enjoy; we assimilate and appropriate.” (77, quoting the London Star, 1901) 


“The PC, however, introduced an entirely new way of living and doing business by becoming the portal through which all of our work is done.”  And it is impossible to imagine life without the internet.  (95) 


What is lacking is physical passion.  “Computers have become handier, cuter, some might even say sexier, but they do very little to engage us as physical beings. … Indeed, the one sense they engage overwhelmingly is sight. … The rest of our senses are effectively browned out.” (96)


Anyone with an email address is a small scale broadcaster.  “This shift, from receiving to generating media, has created an enormous epistemological shift between reading and writing, from talking to writing.  Reading, by virtue of the constant interruptions we face due to electronic communication, is harder than ever before, whereas typing and publishing have become easier than at any point in human hsitory.” (98)


Turning on your BlackBerry in the morning while having coffee can feel like someone has invaded your head.  (103)


One research group estimates the average office worker spent 41% of his day reading and responding to emails in 2009. (104)  Your inbox can become a rolling to-do list.  When you see twenty emails in your inbox it is clear that everyone is waiting for you.  The faster you respond, the faster the replies come boomeranging back to you.  (105)  The work day becomes a multitasking exercise. Because facial expressions and body language are absent, the tone is often misunderstood. 


“We sneak a peek before going to work and clock in before going to bed.  It’s our midnight snack, our reminder we are needed, the mother of all time killers.” (108)


“If Martin Luther were alive today, he possibly would be e-mailing his theses around instead of nailing them to church doors.  But the question remains whether his ideas would be lost in the wash.” (110)


Spam isn’t going away.  It’s too lucrative.  Spammers can become millionaires on a response rate of 1 in 12 million e-mails.  (127)


“Nothing is fully protected once you hit the send button.” (129)


“…we can’t seem to log off.  We haven’t just tried to merge with the machine, to marry it; it has become our iron lung.” (135)


Why are we so obsessed?  There is a mixture of good and bad expectations when we check email.  Checking email is like playing slot machines.  They work on the principle of “variable interval reinforcement.”  Not every time, but sometimes, the action is rewarded.  The lesson learned is that to get the reward, you keep pulling the lever.  So it is with email.  (136-37)


“E-mail has become a way to be reminded that we exist in a world overloaded with connections, that we are needed.” (138)


“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.  Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” (140, quoting Herb Simon)


“We work in the most distraction-prone workplace in the history of mankind.” (140)


“Our use of technology has begun to alter our attention span; we’ve started reverse engineering our brains for speed, as opposed to mindfulness.” (141)


“Reading and other meditative tasks are best performed in…a ‘state of flow,’ in which our focus narrows, the world seems to drop away, and we become less conscious of ourselves and more deeply immersed in ideas and language and complex thought. Many communication tools, however, actually inhibit this state.” (142)


An e-mail to a friend may, if clever or embarrassing enough, be read by hundreds of thousands of people.  An e-mail to a large group may not be read by any of them.” (147) 


Three trademark symptoms of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of individual accomplishment.  Excessive work hours and expectations make work a major cause of health problems.  (161)  “As e-mail use grows, the stresses of working at this frantic pace will only compound, becoming an ever-stronger feedback loop.” (163) 


“It’s almost considered chic to be a workaholic.” (164)  “Spouses are not the only ones neglected when we can’t put down our e-mail.  A whole generation of children will grow up with ever more distracted parents.” (165)


“By tying ourselves to this machine, we make a trade: virtual interaction for physical togetherness.” (172) 


“Eye-tracking studies have shown that people increasingly tend to leapfrog over long blocks of text.  We need bullet points, bold text, short sentences, explanatory subheads, and speedy test.  People skim and scan rather than rummage down into the belly of the beast.” (177) [Did you read this whole paragraph? Dlm]


“What we are losing … is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading.  Virtually all tests show a universal decline in reading ability and comprehension.  Yet reading comprehension is one of the top skills in demand for well-paying jobs.  (179) 


Contact with the natural world reminds us of our limitations.  But many who work in offices don’t touch a single natural substance all day long. (188) 


“Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do….  In short, we need to slow down.” (191)  Emailing “is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world....  We need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.” (192) 


“The convenience and speed of the Internet have drawn us powerfully into a virtual world in which distance appears not to matter.  At the end of the day, though, we need to live in the physical world….”  (195) 


“We need to protect the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships. … We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean.  Communicating at great haste hones our utterances down to instincts and impulses that until now have been held back or channeled more carefully.” (197)


Some of the author’s recommendations:

  1. Send a lot less.  Ask whether each message is essential.   
  2. Don’t check it first thing in the morning or late at night.  Reinforce the boundary between your work and your private life. 
  3. Check it twice a day.  Be fully present when you send messages rather than slipping quick answers in the midst of doing other things. Train others to expect you to respond at only two times during the day.
  4. Keep a written to-do list and include email as part of it.
  5. Use email well.  Start with the subject line.  Use it.  Keep messages short. Separate questions so the recipient will see each one.  If it’s complicated, call on the telephone. 
  6. Read the entire email before responding.  Otherwise you will miss significant information and get caught in a flurry of follow-up emails to get it straightened out.
  7. Do not debate complex or sensitive matters by email. 
  8. And several others, such as, swivel away from your computer to work in a separate space to concentrate on a task and declare a media-free time every day. 



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