For a few years now I’ve been wondering what happened to my relationship with email. There was a time when I really enjoyed it. At work it was a way to communicate easily and effectively. I could draw on my favorite means of communication—the written word—to articulate ideas and concepts using the keyboard to tap it out fast. During this Golden Age of Email in my life I loved getting email at home, too. There were days when a single conversation with friends around the nation—friends I wouldn’t have any meaningful, real contact with were there no email—for days. In that day I was able to protect my email account from spammers so there was rarely, if ever, the nonsensical marketing message or the unwanted update from anywhere or anybody.
I can’t point to a single moment when it happened, but that day is gone. The Golden Age of Email is no more.
Now my personal email is almost exclusively junk mail. (Why did I change my position on providing my email to retailers? Did they just wear me down or was the transformation more sinister?) And even though I’ll check my personal email on my phone throughout the day, typically when I log on to my desktop computer there will be hundreds of emails downloading and not a single one of them from one of the guys about UK basketball, football, what’s so wrong with millennials, or something funny from the high school days.
And work email, for crying out loud. That’s just completely out of hand. I work with people that actually send emails between 12:00 am and 6:00 am. That’s not even human. And how about getting an email from the guy in the office one door down from me. (Is email actually faster than yelling?) I told a friend today, “When you can spend a day doing nothing but responding to email there has got to be something wrong.” Right or wrong, my mind has developed its own filter for prioritizing work email. Here’s my system: (1) Who is the sender (2) What is the subject. If neither registers I will probably wait for the phone call. Not negligent or rude, for me it’s become the simple matter of survival. It’s overwhelming. Here are a couple of thoughts on that:
Boss for the Day! Email has allowed anybody with access to my calendar (read as “everybody”) to put something on it. It’s true that I have the right to decline. (But that’s not really true.) This gives everybody with an internal email account the capacity to be my boss. Which leads to …
Tyranny of the Urgent. Email has conditioned us, along with other versions of technology, to expect answers real time. Whereas in the days prior to the Golden Age of Email colleagues realized there might be a delay in responding or [gasp] solve the problem themselves, now a “stay of responsibility” is only a click away. So why not? Who could blame a guy for that. Which leads me to …
Problem Forwarding. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but there’s a chance that email has removed a great deal of initiative from the workplace. On the one hand, this technology has allowed us to essentially multiply our communications way beyond the old in-house memo. On the other hand, the temptation to forward a question, problem, or responsibility is just too great. In fact it’s irresistible. And I’m not saying I haven’t done it because I have. I’ve never done crack, but my guess is that problem-forwarding is something like that. I can see my future: “My name is Agonistes and I am a problem-forwarding addict.”
This post is actually a lament. I realize that technology will continue to propel us into different situations that require different skill sets, organization, and time management. But there was a day when people absolutely relied on human contact and interaction to advance the conversation. Of course email has its merit and it’s ultimately a very helpful tool so much of this is of course exaggeration. And frankly the world moves too fast for the old approach to production to work anyway. Still, for me at least, there’s the sense of something lost in the sound and fury. But by all means feel free to send me anything about UK basketball, college football, movies, Disney, or 1930-1950 Hollywood.