Book Review: The Tyranny of Email
Does this sound familiar? You wake up and immediately notice the light is flashing on your smart phone. It’s an urgent email, so you rush to your computer and begin to compose a response. Suddenly a “new email” pop-up appears. You respond to that before finishing your previous message…and then you notice another email with important news about another project you were working on. An hour later, you finally make it to the shower, and you gobble down a granola bar in the car for breakfast.
John Freeman isn’t a big fan of email. In his recent book, The Tyranny of E-Mail: the Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your
Inbox, the British author and editor explores the effect of electronic communication on modern culture. He reports:
The Tyranny of E-Mail:
the Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox
224 pp., illustrated
- 65% of us spend more time at the computer than with our spouses; 62% check email on vacation; 67% read email in bed.
- According to some studies, modern office workers spend on average 41% of their day reading and responding to email.
- For some of us, checking our email and social media sites could be classified as an addiction. Brain scans of a user hitting the "send/receive" button resemble those of gamblers pulling the slot machine handle.
- The 24/7 nature of email and other digital information has resulted in a chronic sleep deficit for many Americans.
For most of us, of course, email is here to stay, both in our personal and professional lives. And Freeman is quick to point out that some of the problems we might think of as modern are nothing new. In an entertaining short history of the evolution of communication from letter writing to the telegraph to the telephone to digital age, he reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same:
- As soon as the U.S. Post Office established second-class mail, reasoning that "a postal system should help disseminate information as a public service," junk mail was quick to take over.
- By 1880, newspapers were full of stories of swindlers who baited their victims through the mail—and many of these scams are almost identical to today’s email fraud schemes.
- Twitter haters should know that in the early 20th century, people might send their friends across town several postcards a day, with a line or two about what they were doing.
- Essayist H.L. Mencken felt duty-bound to answer letters the day they arrived. He said, "My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me."
- Early ancestors of today’s internet "trolls" took advantage of the inexpensive postcard to send unsigned, harassing messages to unsuspecting victims.
Our historical figures were not immune. Today journalists tease President Obama for being joined at the hip with his BlackBerry—but did you know that Abraham Lincoln was criticized for his constant telegraphing? Freeman reports that the president would obsessively "peer over the shoulders of the operators when an important message came in and was being decoded."
For those of us who sometimes feel as if we are at the mercy of online "leashes," The Tyranny of Email offers insights into some significant differences between email and other forms of communication. Being aware of this might inspire some helpful rules for companies who want to have email work for them, rather than the other way around:
Email has changed how we think about time. Freeman cites studies that show email senders expect a response within four hours. After that, they are likely to send a follow-up: "Did you receive my email?" And a cycle begins. It’s also hard to know when a back-and-forth email conversation is actually concluded. And if someone fails to respond to your email, are they being rude, or are they out of the office…or did your email bounce?
The constant interruption of new email makes it hard to stay on task. The arrival of a new email has the psychological impact of pre-empting whatever we are thinking about. Freeman says some companies have established "email-free Fridays," or suggest that employees check their new mail only at a regular interval. And think carefully about whether your "new mail" pop-up helps or distracts.
Email slices away the many non-verbal communication cues available to us in face-to-face meetings or even in a phone call. So it may take many more words to get your thought across. Though email may seem more casual, it actually requires a great deal of precision—and proofreading. Emailing back and forth with a co-worker down the hall? Get up and go to her office—it will probably save time. Or pick up the phone.
The lack of non-verbal cues can also easily lead to misunderstandings. Freeman cites a Cisco study showing that co-workers who had to collaborate by email for an extended period of time "invariably experienced a breakdown in communication." The perception of rudeness or aggressiveness can quickly snowball without the constant feedback and subtle tone changes of verbal communication. Smiley faces and other emoticons are no longer exclusively an affectation of middle school girls, but are becoming more acceptable for email conversation.
Email is a potential privacy nightmare. Count the ways things can go wrong: your autocomplete fills in the wrong email address. You find out that an angry, indiscreet comment you made about someone ended up in their very own inbox, many layers deep in a multiperson string of replies. A disgruntled recipient forwards your confidential email to everyone in their inbox. You write something in a fit of temper—and it goes viral. Freeman shares the story of an executive who "once sent details of his salary to the entire company by accident and pulled the fire alarm in panic."
User error is the least of it. We also must be armed against security breaches, hackers and spam. (Freeman shares this tidbit: in May 1978, a researcher sent the first bit of spam, to 400 of the 2,600 people in the world who had email addresses. They complained.)
Few of us would want to return to the days when it took months or even years for a communication to reach us. And most of us take for granted the speed and efficiency with which we can communicate in our business and private lives. But Freeman’s thought-provoking exploration is an entertaining and eye-opening look at how electronic communications technologies have changed the way we work, play, live, love—and maybe even how our brains are being rewired!
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