Monday, January 4, 2010

The Tyranny of E-Mail

Welcome back to work, and let me please wish you a very happy new year. I hope that you were able to enjoy your time off and am now well rested and ready to get back at it.

While I was away on break, I had occasion to replace my cell phone. This is of no apparent note, except for the fact that doing so allowed me to finally be able to text message and to access my email when away from my computer. This seems a good thing in today’s busy world. But while I was on vacation I also had occasion to read an interesting and intriguing new book, John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-Mail (1). After doing so, I had serious room for thought.

I can remember a time before e-mail existed. I can also remember a time when, as the dean of postgraduate education at National University of Health Sciences, I was receiving more than 300 e-mails per day, all of which required action. I know that I tend to respond to e-mail promptly, often within seconds of when I receive a message. This is not unusual. As Freeman notes, studies have shown that in corporate environments, the average time from when an e-mail is sent to when a response is received is less than 3 minutes. I know that I have had meetings with administrators where they have interrupted their face-to-face meeting with me to respond to an e-mail that just came in on their Blackberry or iPhone; I am struck by the fact that they felt it necessary to do so when all they had to do was wait 10 minutes for me to finish up. I do not mean this as a rant, but e-mail is transfiguring the nature of how we work, and in some ways of how we learn.

The average worker now receives approximately 200 e-mail messages per day. In 2007, 35 trillion e-mail were sent globally, compared to 3 million text messages and just 165 billion phone calls. Part of the reason for this is the growth of hand-held devices, such as the Blackberry I just purchased. There is at least one study which has shown that 59% of people with hand-held devices that can receive e-mail respond to their email as soon as one arrives. This is flat-out scary.

And this is the environment in which we teach. No doubt we have all taught classes where at least one of our students has sent a text message during class. And the reason for the book calling e-mail "tyrannical" is this: when you receive an e-mail and you do not respond, you are actually preventing someone else from getting work done. But the faster you respond, the faster you get new e-mails back, and this cycle onto itself. And e-mails create e-mails, ad infinitum; you send a short note of thanks, only to get back an e-mail which also thanks you back, and you feel the need to respond to that, and this ends up creating yet more e-mails. And then there is the ubiquitous “cc” trail, which amps up the amount of e-mail as everyone on the “cc” list feels compelled to add something, and more messages fly back and forth. People stop using spelling and grammar correctly in order to save time in order to send out more and more e-mails. And through all of this you cannot read mood or personality, because all you have is text, not intonation or facial expression, so you resort to emoticons to help convey mood, use a smiley face to let the reader know you are not being sarcastic. And so it goes. We use out-of-office replies to let people know we will not respond to their e-mail- because they can’t get work done if we don’t. Some people use the out-of-office message just go to the doctor for an hour.

We need to take back control. Next week, I’ll talk about how we might do just that.

1. Freeman J. The tyranny of e-mail. New York; Scribner, 2009

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