Scaling email mountain

I’ve just returned from a week’s leave.  I took a friend’s good advice and didn’t touch my email while I was gone. Not once.  Not even a peek.  The trouble is, as I settle back in this morning the in-box overflows.  As I watch the counter tally up the grand total for the week, I slump into my seat. It’s all I can do to pull myself up and order another coffee.

Amidst the offers to improve my sex life (very disconcerting!), there’s the usual long list of requests, notices, forwards, demands and reminders—most flagged urgent. Then there are the agendas for meetings and their endless attachments, and links to professional associations and journals begging to be read. It feels like a forbidding mountain to scale before I can do anything else.

I remember when I first encountered email, it was captivating and wonderful. I was living overseas at the time and contact with home had never been easier. Today it feels like a bind. As I stare at the in-tray I feel more imprisoned than liberated. Then again, given the choice to do without I’d probably say no. In a startlingly short period it’s become as necessary as the telephone. I like it. I loathe it. I need it.

Granted, I’m not a technophile. But I’ve never been more conscious of technology’s impact upon my daily life than I am today. Call me a slow learner. Perhaps it’s the now eternal presence of my smart phone. Or the 24-hour wireless internet connection at home. I’ve never been so ‘in touch’ or accessible.

In an idiosyncratic but fascinating book The Tyranny of the Moment, Danish Anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen explores the impact of information technology on our lives. He’s no Luddite, but he does call us to think more about the consequences of our dependence and make more proactive choices about the place of these technologies in our daily routines.

Here’s a few of the impacts that Eriksen identifies:

It fills the gaps: every moment is saturated and the empty spaces vanish. We talk on the phone as we walk down the street, text friends and contacts while commuting on the tram, surf the internet or review work documents while sitting in a café.  As every spare moment is filled, creativity and imagination struggle for breath.

It pickles us in information: we’ve never been more information-rich. We no longer have to go looking for it; it comes to us. We are bombarded relentlessly with ‘bits’ of information, each one unrelated to the next.  We are progressively pickled in it. Protecting yourself from the 99 per cent of info you’ll never need is the daily challenge, as is discerning what’s really important.

It creates a new form of poverty: while we may be information-rich, we face new forms of scarcity. Elements of life most threatened include: •slow time 
•belonging and stable identities 
•coherence and understanding
 •cumulative, linear, organic growth
 •real flesh-and-blood experiences.

It nurtures an addiction to speed: where the acceleration of daily life is omnipresent, slowness becomes an intolerable inconvenience.  And it touches everything.  The addictive force of speed can deprive us of the gift of slowness, a gift we lose to our peril.

Eriksen’s concludes his book with a list of recommendations. Here are some of them:

1. What can be done quickly, should be done quickly.
2. Dawdling is a virtue and should be honoured in its rightful place.
3. Slowness needs protection. If unprotected, it will be consumed by the relentless force of speed.
4. Delays can be embraced as blessings in disguise.
5. The logic of the wood cabin (places that value slow time) deserves to be globalised.
6. Be aware: all decisions exclude as much as they include.
7. Most things one will never need to know about. So relax!

4 thoughts on “Scaling email mountain

  1. @Ian Packer…. I dunno, there appears to be considerable embrace of the slowness/dawdling ethic among some PhD students I know 😉

  2. The alternative to answering these emails of course is to declare email bankruptcy and delete the lot of them.

    From wikipedia
    Email bankruptcy is a term used to explain a decision to delete all emails older than a certain date, due to an overwhelming volume of messages. The term is usually attributed to author Lawrence Lessig in 2004[1] but which can also be attributed to Dr Sherry Turkle in 2002.[2]
    An insurmountable volume or backlog of legitimate messages (e.g. maybe on return from an extended vacation), may also lead to bankruptcy.
    During the act of declaring email bankruptcy, a message is usually sent to all senders explaining the problem, that their message has been deleted, and that if their message still requires a response they should resend their message.[3][4][5]

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