Blog Post

Too Much Email??

My Facebook Friend and Real Life Neighbor, Melynn, asked what I thought
of this LA Times article "You've Got Too Much Email." It took me a
while to answer because, well, I had too much email . . . but, while I
agree about the quantity of info we have to sort in our online lives, I
don't agree with some of its other premises about either the problems
of multitasking distraction or online sociality's destruction of real sociality.

 

However, this posting will be a quick one, and no doubt error-filled (now that is a problem!) because it is quick, but I have to run because, you guessed it, I have too much email, and also because I'm about to reunite with my ur-Undisclosed Location (as pictured on Facebook, of course). . . so, hastily and with apologies in advance for inevitable typos, here goes:

 

(1) We all have too much email. True, true, true. But for those of us who hate phones and always have, I'll take the email any day. Really. That said the next Nobel Prize in Technology Innovation should go to the person who figures out the equivalent of an "attentacon" that automatically attaches an image to each email prioritizing its importance. What Semantic Web is to cognition, AI, and search functions, the "attentacon" would be to affective attachments, true obligations, and other forms of social and emotive indicators of attentional priority. Namely: which of these emails do I think that I need to answer first. Forget the little red exclamation mark the boss appends (although, believe me, I would pay attention to that one!). I want an automated system that sorts all my email according to my internal emotional temperature and the material impingements of everyday life. As I said, that one gets the Nobel Prize.

 

(2) Email means our attention is constantly interrupted. We're less productive. Actually, all studies I know shows there is nothing that contributes more to lack of productivity than monotony. We're even learning that a monotonous job shortens your life. Truly. Two people, same economic status, one owns his own business and works 90 hours a week and one works two shifts, on the line, no autonomy, boring work, and she too works 90 hours a week. Life expectancy for the first person is about seven years longer. Boredom kills. Also, as Howard Rheingold shows in his amazing experiments when he teaches social networking (close your cell phone, close your laptop, close your eyes: he has students spend the first five minutes with their eyes closed examining where their brain goes: it isn't in a straight line and on one thought!), it takes enormous energy not to be diverted. Diversion is relaxing, reviving, refreshing. It renews synaptic connections, springs up that much-vaunted and necessary neural plasticity. I don't think multi-distraction (as I cause it) is a bad thing at all. We thrive on it. And we need to learn when we want and need distraction. The key here, as in all things (see, Mama told you this!) is self-control and self-determination about when to be distracted. It's a good thing, but be strategic about it.

 

(3) All this social connection means we are lonely. Bull! Living in a hyper-surveilled society where we restrict our kids' privacy, their imaginative life, their physical movement, everything, with day cares and camps and play dates and terror of strangers and surveillance in schools, and policing and on and on and on. If it weren't for the Internet, where would we be in our frightened, post 9-11 paranoid worlds? What privacy would kids have it it weren't for online? How would they interact with their friends? How would they see new worlds? I just don't buy any of the reductionist scenarios about this. There are downsides, but most of the downsides we're bombarded with by pundits don't make sense and posit some nostalgic pre-Internet world that isn't about the Internet but about the conditions of sociality in our crazy workaholic paranoid world. Technology is always blamed for anti-social behavior. Mass printing was in the 18th century, radio was, tv was . . . and now the Internet. I'm not buying it.

 

Now, back to a hundred emails . . .

Reposted from the Los Angeles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-et-email31-2008jul31,0,3104453.story?page=1
From the Los Angeles Times

You've got too much e-mail

There's
a growing backlash against our growing in-boxes. A new crop of
entrepreneurs has sprung up with antidotes -- some of which create more
e-mail.

By Leslie Brenner
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 31, 2008

It happened with cigarettes. It happened with red meat. And carbs. And SUVs.

And now it's happening with e-mail. The preferred communication channel of millions of Americans is no longer cool.

According to a growing number of academics, "technologists" and
psychologists, our dependence on e-mail -- the need to attend to a
constantly beeping in-box -- is creating anxiety in the workplace,
adversely affecting the ability to focus, diminishing productivity and
threatening family bonds. The problem has become so severe that a new
crop of entrepreneurs has sprung up with antidotes -- which sometimes
involve creating more e-mail.

Technology geeks who not long ago were comparing the size of their
in-boxes as a gauge of Digital Age machismo are now attempting to wean
themselves from Outlook and Gmail.

Behind the e-mail backlash is a growing perception that, despite its
convenience and everything positive it has brought to work and leisure,
the tide has turned, and now once-friendly e-mail is a monster that's
threatening to ruin our lives.

"It chases you," says Natalie Firstenberg, a Los Angeles therapist who
says the subject of e-mail has been coming up more and more in sessions
with her clients. "There are no business hours."

Timothy Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," says that what's
wrong with e-mail is that it simulates forward motion but doesn't
necessarily mean action.

"E-mail is used as a self-validation tool by people to
procrastinate and to re-create activity versus productivity," he says.
Ferriss, who says he used to receive "close to 300 e-mails per hour,"
is now checking his personal account only twice a day.

Tantek Celik, a computer scientist who has worked for Microsoft, Sun
Microsystems, Apple Computer and Technorati, a blog search engine,
proclaimed several months ago on his blog: "EMAIL shall henceforth be
known as EFAIL."

As legions of "knowledge workers" vacation this summer, the
question of whether to take along the BlackBerry is more complicated
than ever. Do, and the vacation might not be such a vacation after all.
Don't, and you're likely to return to an in-box that takes hours to
clear or, worse, to the dreaded "your mailbox has exceeded its limits"
message.

Meanwhile, e-mail, long hailed as a timesaving boon, has taken over the
workplace like a midsummer algae bloom. Tony Wright, a software
developer in Seattle who recently launched (in beta form) RescueTime, a
program that tracks how users spend their time on the computer, has
found that 38% of office workers' time is spent on communication
applications such as e-mail.

According to a report to be published in October by the New York-based
research firm Basex, interruptions such as spam, other unnecessary
e-mail and instant-messages take up 28% of the average knowledge
worker's day.

On top of that is what Basex chief analyst Jonathan Spira refers to as
recovery time -- the time to get back to where you were before you were
interrupted, which Spira says is 10 to 20 times the duration of the
interruption. These interruptions account for up to 2.1 hours per
worker per day. Multiply that by 56 million knowledge workers in the
U.S., he calculates, and the cost is $650 billion per year.

Susan Jamison, 48, a commercial litigation partner at Coblentz, Patch,
Duffy & Bass, a San Francisco law firm, is stressed to the breaking
point. She sometimes receives hundreds of e-mails a day, she says, and
most days she gets about 40 case-related notes, often with lengthy
attachments.

"If it's a multi-party case, it may generate maybe 20 e-mails from
other people," she says. "So as you're trying to focus on it, you're
getting this ping-ping-ping as people are chattering about the e-mail."

Even her phone calls show up on-screen as e-mails when she's already on a call. How can she focus enough to write a brief?

E-mail backlash started in earnest last year with "no e-mail" Fridays
at companies such as Intel, U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche.
But popular opinion has it that this turned out to be not much more
than a Band-Aid.

More recently, the movement accelerated as a new organization,
Information Overload Research Group, held a conference in New York.
According to Vice President Deva Hazarika (who is also chief executive
of ClearContext Corp., a software development corporation), the
nonprofit group formed when a number of researchers, academics and
software developers came together to discuss the challenges they were
seeing in corporations.

"We all felt that information overload was something that was such
a big problem that some companies were beginning to be aware of it but
a lot of people didn't realize the magnitude of the problem," Hazarika
says. "And we could increase awareness."

Ironically, a number of the group's members work for the companies that
created software that caused the problem in the first place --
including four at Microsoft Research, creator of Outlook. E-mail,
Hazarika says, was the conference's main focus because it is "very much
the primary cause" of information overload.

It's also one of the worst culprits in a growing global lack of focus,
says Maggie Jackson, author of the recently published book "Distracted:
The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age."

"We're highly connected," Jackson says, "yet we're connecting in
thinner, more faceless ways. We experience fewer visits, fewer
telephone calls, fewer contacts all around -- except e-mail. We're
subsisting on this diet of snippets and glimpses of each other
socially."

Nor is e-mail always friendly -- it can be confrontational in a way that talking usually isn't.

"If we're having feelings with someone else that we need to
confront," says therapist Firstenberg, "many times we'll resort to an
e-mail rather than take the risk of picking up the phone and calling. .
. . It's a very egocentric act. . . . It's dumping. And it gets really
misunderstood."

Even if the e-mail is friendly, there's still risk of offense if the
recipient doesn't respond quickly. Already feeling pressured to keep up
with her in-box, attorney Jamison feels added stress from this kind of
friendly fire.

"Less than half a day goes by and you'll get an e-mail saying,
'Why haven't you responded to my e-mail?' " she says. "The expectation,
because you've sent it, is the other person is looking at his screen
all the time and his job is to look at his screen waiting for e-mails."

According to Jackson, information overload is not just making life at
the dinner table less pleasant as Mom checks her BlackBerry, but it's
also undermining civilization itself.

"We're so overloaded by information bites that we're less and less
able to go deeply, to create knowledge or wisdom out of all the
information," she says. "This is one reason why I say we're on the cusp
of a dark age."

Historically, dark ages have sometimes been periods of technical
advancement, she explains, "but they're ultimately times of cultural
decline. I think we're defining our own dark age by skimming along on
the surface of life and relationships and thoughts. And it's certainly
a dark age when we're faced with an ignorance born not out of a lack of
information but out of an inability to create knowledge out of the
information around us."

Lately, a mini-industry has sprung up around finding solutions to
e-mail overload. Hazarika's ClearContext software firm has developed a
program that manages Outlook, for example, offering features including
a "do not disturb" button, an automated "unsubscribe" feature and an
optimized folder filing system.

Another program, Xobni ("in-box" backward) determines the "hot zones"
when a person tends to receive the most e-mail, then batches e-mail
during those times and sends out an auto-response indicating the user
is checking e-mail only at certain times.

Then there are those who are just throwing up their hands. Case in
point: Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University Law School professor and
founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society. Four years
ago, Lessig reportedly declared "e-mail bankruptcy." After spending 80
hours going through his in-box, he simply gave up and sent out an
apologetic note to all his unanswered correspondents explaining that he
could not respond. If they answered that note, he'd pay special
attention.

Lessig could not be reached for comment -- not even by e-mail.

 

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--Special thanks to Michael Bolinger for posting this image of One Laptop Per Child on Flickr. Please click on the image for his entire photostream and full documentation.

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1 comment

The next big time monopolizer will be (is?) RSS feeds. Perhaps it says something about my lack of connectedness with others but I spend about twice as much time each day taking interesting links that pop up on my aggregator than I do reading and responding to e-mail. This could involve the passivity of reading (often diversionary) stories compared to the active nature of responding to an e-mail.

Still, for anyone that wants to keep up with the daily news in just about any industry the feeling of going too long without checking their feeds and the dread of returning to find hundreds if not thousands of stories to sift through is commonplace. There are programs out there that monitor what feeds you ultimately click and and put stories you are more likely to be interested in near the top, but these are still in their infancy. There may come a time when bloggers are too busy reading their feeds to do any writing!

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