Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Tyranny of Email

While the writing is far from lyrical, and while the book feels a bit "padded," John Freeman's The Tyranny of Email deserves attention and discussion. In a way, it's going to tell you something you already know; on the other hand, it synthesizes this common knowledge into a compelling and convicting account of how bad our habits have become. Like Aquinas' treatises on the virtues and vices, it provides a taxonomy to name our sins, and that diagnosis could be a first step to becoming someone else. Indeed, I read it as an invitation to consider spiritual disciplines as the only suitable countermeasure.

I'm only part way through, but consider a couple of snippets. Who, for instance, can identify with this?
E-mail is addictive, it has been shown, in the same way that slot machines are addictive. You press the send/receive button just as a gambler pulls down a slot machine lever, because you know that yo will receive a reward (mail/a payout) some of the time. The best way to increase the chance of a reward is to press "Send" a lot. In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail thirty to forty times an hour.

It's true, isn't it? You just never know when you could receive that email that might change your life! And while you're waiting, clicking and clicking and watching and waiting, you're not doing anything that could change your life. (So yes, I need something like EA: "My name is Jamie Smith, and I am an email addict...")

Most compelling, though, is Freeman's diagnosis of what this does to the way we inhabit the world:
Working at the speed of e-mail is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train--and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The e-mail inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest--there's always something new and even more urgent reasing what we originally thought was the day's priority.

Freeman eventually counsels some practices changes of habit (e.g., don't check your email either first thing in the morning or late at night; check it twice a day; etc.). Well and good, and I'm hoping--praying like mad--that I could incorporate some of these into my own rhythms. But of course what we also need is a community that structures itself in this way, which changes its expectations about instanteous communication. We can't fight this tyranny on our own; it will require institutional change, and big ships are hard to turn.