About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, July 2, 2010

#51 - The Tyranny of E-Mail

The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, by John Freeman (New York: Scribner, 2009).

Jacket summary: "The first e-mail was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users. The average corporate worker now receives upwards of two hundred e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere. We check e-mail in transit; we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even midconversation, blithely assuming no one will notice. We no longer make our own to-do list. E-mail does.

"It's time for a break. In The Tyranny of E-Mail, John Freeman takes an entertaining look at the nature of correspondence through the ages. From love poems delivered on clay tablets through the art of the letter to the first era of information overload (via the telegraph) to the vast network brought on by the Internet, Freeman answers the difficult question, Where is this taking us?

"Put down your BlackBerry and consider the consequences. As the toll of e-mail mounts by reducing our time for leisure and contemplation and by separating us from one another in an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox, John Freeman -- one of American's preeminent literary critics -- enters a plea for communication that is more selective and nuanced and, above all, more sociable."

Table of Contents:
  1. Introduction
  2. Words in Motion
  3. The Invention of Now
  4. All Together Now
  5. This Is Your Brain on E-Mail
  6. Dawn of the Machines
  7. Manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement
  8. Don't Send
My take: This was an interesting read, but didn't quite live up to the promise suggested by its strong start. The first chapters offer a whirlwind overview of communication technology, from the world's oldest love poem, carved in cuneiform some 4,000 years ago, to the speed-of-light pace of today's email and chat offerings. In the Introduction, Freeman presents the contrast in a gorgeous and provocative manner, describing first the love poem:
"Love may not be forever, but this expression of it has outlasted swords forged by fire, cities designed by the finest architects, the largest machine ever to fly, and the most titanic boat ever to sail. To write his verse, the poet would have had to compose the lines in his head or recite them to a friend. Then he would have molded the clay tablet and slowly, but deliberately, carved his verse into it with a reed staff before the clay hardened. Finally, he would have dried the poem in the sun and waited another day for it to cool, when it could be delivered by his beloved by hand."
and then, a page or so later, the quantity-over-quality attitude exemplified by Google's unlimited storage:
"Thanks to a group of 450,000 machines scattered across the United States like underground missle bunkers, I could store more e-mails than there are blades of grass in Kansas. This is beyond unprecedented -- it is superhuman. Is God's inbox this big? ... What busy individual needs this industrial-strength capacity for his correspondence tool? What buzzing, humming megalopolis tunes in to this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive? Is the human brain wired to receive this much stimuli? Can our eyes scan this many separate pieces of information? Is anyone listening?"
He goes on to argue that contemporary American worker bees are swamped by what he deems an email tsunami, sending and receiving an average of 200 emails per day, expected to be constantly on-call to a degree formerly reserved for doctors, plumbers, and heads of state.

Since I've long looked with skepticism on any claims that the world's going to hell in a handbasket, and that things were much better in the good old days, I got a chuckle or 3 out of Freeman's communication history, reading about how once upon a time, folks were shocked by the introduction of the postal service and the typewriter. I also found myself agreeing with some of what he suggests are the negative consequences of our constant connection to email, such as fractured attention spans and little or no uninterrupted time for complex, creative thinking. And I certainly don't think, for the majority of workers, being constantly tethered to our jobs by electronic leashes is a good thing (which is why I'm able to resist it for myself).

That said, though, I'm not sure Freeman's prescription -- essentially, calling for us to think before we send still more email, and train ourselves to check and respond to email only a few times a day -- is all that revolutionary (heck, almost any time management book will offer similar suggestions), or that email has been quite as bad for our social and familial lives as he'd have us believe. Could most of us stand to spend more time with our friends IRL, and less commenting on our Facebook friends' statuses? Sure. But in a world where many of us are like me -- relatives a good day's drive away, and dear friends on the other side of the globe -- there's also a lot to be said for having other options. And while I do indeed see plenty of people using their laptops in my local cafes, I also see plenty chatting with friends or reading low-tech books.

I don't want to suggest that The Tyranny of E-Mail is a bad book; I just think I may already be in the choir to which Freeman's preaching. If you're an early adopter and never really thought much about whether contemporary communication technologies are an unqualified good thing, give this one a read ... if you've pondered this some on your own, though, the book may not do much for you.

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