Email as a normal person problem

A problem manufactured to create solutions
Email is overrated as a normal person problem. But you would never know it from the coverage of tech journalists or the dramatic rollouts of email “solutions” like IBM Verse (18 years late to the webmail party), Google Inbox, or the recent Gmail for Android redesign. For upper-level managers and VP/C-level executives, email is almost all there is. In June 2006, Paul Graham wrote:

“If you ask eminent people what’s wrong with their lives, the first thing they’ll complain about is the lack of time. A friend of mine at Google is fairly high up in the company and went to work for them long before they went public. In other words, he’s now rich enough not to have to work. I asked him if he could still endure the annoyances of having a job, now that he didn’t have to. And he said that there weren’t really any annoyances, except—and he got a wistful look when he said this—that he got so much email.”

The real lesson here is not to be eminent, but the more obvious one is that email is a tax on “productivity.” The latter term has become so overloaded over the past century, to the point that it is now meaningless. To have email is to have problems, and to have problems is, increasingly, to have no time at all. Cue Quinn Norton:

“We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.”

Ok, so the plague of productivity, often borne by the rat of email, is obviously entrenched in U.S. workplace culture. So why did I say email was “overrated,” if it has such depressing consequences?

Because it’s just an amplifier, rather than the source, of the problem. If email didn’t exist, Facebook or Slack or something else would pick up the slack. There would be tons of clients for those services, made by top developers and designers who would have no choice but find a replacement for email. “Solving” these new media would become the topic of numerous Medium posts and Verge articles – and a key indicator that the writer/user was serious and busy.

There’s the problem. Plenty of us have already “solved” email simply by not using it. I get maybe 5 personal account emails, tops, each day, most of them auto-generated or promotional. I understand that this admission disqualifies me from being an Eminent Serious Person, but it also relieves me of a constant “problem” of sorting through stuff that by and large doesn’t matter.

Even at work, where I may get 20 emails a day, 19 of them usually require no action. I could reply to some – i.e., with “Thanks, I’ll keep this in mind” – but a lot of those responses would be political exercises. Email is a lifestyle choice, not an intractable force.

Moreover, I think a lot of people don’t care about email, in the same way that they don’t care about calendars, maps, or Microsoft Office, as Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent tweet. Through the lens of the tech press, you’d think that email was one of the top problems facing humanity today. Through the lenses of my eyes on the subway, I see every phone on Snapchat, Facebook, or a Web browser, not an email client.

So what is email good for?
Email is the price of admission to a certain segment of the culture, meant to exhaust workers and ultimately preserve the status quo. Which is too bad, since it’s a powerful enabler of thought – as long as you’re writing in drafts.

In high school – probably the peak of my email usage, since it was still a novel tool for me back then, plus it had no competition at the time – I wrote a lot of long emails that contained small plays and novellas in them. I have since found this behavior hard to replicate outside the inbox, no matter what writing tool I use.

I think the magic of email draft writing is that it feels important. This feeling is the same reason, I imagine, why so many tech writers and business executives fall over themselves about email – even when it hurts, it feels good to humblebrag about getting hundreds of messages a day and signal the status that comes with that admission. Email is literally going somewhere, after all.

Other writing media have less obvious routes to dissemination. Even a blogging CMS carries with it the implication that the post may never be read in its entirety or at all. Emailing almost guarantees an audience. That’s what makes it good for writing and excellent as an enabler of anyone hungry for attention and imagined prestige.

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