Ferro: Is email good for us?
Recently, Weber State University professor Luke Fernandez and I ran a small seminar discussing the book “A World Without Email” by Cal Newport. The students agreed with the book’s premise: We should limit email use. But their reasons didn’t fully align with the author’s.
Electronic mail began in the late 1960s. The SNDMSG program allowed people on a multi-user and time-shared computer to send notes to each other. In 1971, Computer programmer Ray Tomlinson extended that system to allow for messages over the ARPANET (the precursor to the internet), creating the “user@computer” notation we use today.
By 1973, email was 75% of the traffic on ARPANET. This surprised the defense department, the funding agency, because the primary reason for ARPANET’s invention was sharing computer resources, not person-to-person communication. Its originators, however, had always thought bigger. They predicted the creation of virtual communities that didn’t rely on physical proximity but of shared interests. By 1975, a mailing list for science fiction fans called SF-Lovers basically constituted the first “social network,” with countrywide membership.
For the early users of email, a certain nostalgia exists for running on the unpatented, “open-sourced” and “Wild West” internet. There’s also a dismissive attitude toward the newer commercial entities such as Facebook and Instagram. Older programmers, for example, see little difference between the various internet creations and the original technology. Even Twitter co-founder Evan Williams said, “People don’t invent things on the internet, they simply expand on an idea that already exists.” For early adopters of electronic communication, a new world opened up, no longer dependent on envelopes and stamps; no longer dependent on old organizations, and they still remember that promise.
Unfortunately, according to Newport, the almost friction-free communication medium of email created a problem. While delayed (or asynchronous) responses to emails are technically possible, the social expectations changed to require immediate responses. Today, emails from co-workers (“I just need a quick answer to a quick question …”) demand attention. We must constantly determine which emails to answer while trying to do our “real jobs.” Our brains have gone on high alert trying to sift through our overcrowded inboxes, creating undue stress.
Newport’s book’s subtitle, “Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload,” hints at his ultimate goal of improved productivity. He wonders if a different technology might exist to improve work. He relays stories of companies where email expectations have been relegated to once-per-day frequencies. He delves into psychology to show that we don’t multitask well and that intellectual work requires focused attention.
Our Gen-Z students, however, saw email as representing the older generation and their expectations in the workforce. In their assessment, Newport, who qualifies as a millennial, doesn’t get the full problem. Older ways of thinking drove communication technology usage. Other, newer, technologies (such as Slack, one that Newport talks about at some length) didn’t improve the situation. For our students, the real problem is managers who don’t trust workers, want to see “butts in seats” and want to create a “surveillance state” where workers keep tabs on each other. Email represented managers, parents, teachers and anyone else holding an authoritative position and who were, perhaps, wielding that authority poorly.
Of course, I hesitate to blame cultural differences on generational differences. That’s ultimately lazy. The young are always younger and will continue to age and develop. They also likely have a different historical lens through which they process the world. But adults have looked askance at the young forever. Socrates noted the young have bad manners and don’t respect their elders. Aristotle thought children were closer to animals than humans. Meanwhile, Socrates argued against that comparatively new-fangled technology of writing, something of which Aristotle, born later, approved, so we can see where those arguments went.
Reading Newport’s book made me rethink how I worked. I created more blocks of time (other than the weekend, where it traditionally happened) where I don’t intend to read email and can work on more focused activities. The discussions with the students made me rethink my communication with colleagues. I’m not typically dealing with emergencies, so I began to more frequently use the “delayed send” function in email for my questions.
I won’t be living in a world without email anytime soon, however. Just last week I told someone (a millennial) in my college about the book. Their response? They really appreciated how quickly I responded to emails.
David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9