Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"The Tyranny of E-mail: the four-thousand year journey to your inbox" by John Freeman

The first e-mail was sent less than forty years ago: by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users. The average corporate worker now receives upwards of two hundred e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere. We check e-mail in transit; we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even midconversation, blithely assuming no one will notice. We no longer make our own to-do list. E-mail does. It's time for a break. In The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman takes an entertaining look at the nature of correspondence through the ages. From love poems delivered on clay tablets to the art of the letter to the first era of information overload (via the telegraph) to the vast network brought on by the Internet, Freeman answers the difficult question, Where is this taking us? Put down your BlackBerry and consider the consequences. As the toll of e-mail mounts by reducing our time for leisure and contemplation and by separating us from one another in an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox, John Freeman - one of America's preeminent literary critics - enters a plea for communication that is more selective and nuanced and, above all, more sociable.

This was a wonderful little book about email. Yes, the ability to send and receive messages via cyberspace (and the ability to do it almost instantly) has changed the way the world works. Literally. According to John Freeman, there are some in the corporate world that receive and try to respond to some 200+ emails every day. Thankfully, I am not one of those people. But there are times where it can seem as if everyone wants a piece of you, and if you don't respond quickly enough, you can anger someone in an instant.

What was interesting about this book is that it's not just about email. Freeman traces the evolution of written communication from love poems painstakingly traced onto clay tablets, to written letters on papyrus, to the telegraph, the Pony Express, and our much-maligned Postal Service. It's all here, from soup to nuts, so to speak. And the author does an excellent job of also tracing the de-volution of our writing skills; letters were once works of art, with the author taking the time and care necessary to really communicate their feelings (or simply their actions, as the case may be - either way, they used proper grammar and spelling).

Of course, once the computer was invented, and the Internet was up and running, we turned to this thing called email - and a monster was born. What should be a fast and efficient way for us to send messages has instead become the albatross around our necks; people in companies will no longer walk down the hall to ask their co-worker a question - they send an email. Employees work more than the normal 8-hour day so they can ensure that they have answered all their messages, even the ones that don't really require a response. And how do you determine what really needs a response? Worse yet, people no longer relax when they are home with family; they spend precious moments "checking in" with the office using their Blackberrys or laptops, rather than talk, eat, and laugh with their loved ones. And vacations? Who truly goes on vacation anymore? With the current economic situation, people are afraid not to check in with work - their job might not be there when they return from their exotic destination.

I agree with most of what Freeman has to say, all but the actual amount of email. Then again, I don't have an uber-important corporate position, so maybe I'd feel differently if I did. I thought it was very interesting that Freeman makes the argument of us being addicted to email, literally getting a "high" when we get new messages and getting depressed when there's nothing new in the box. And I very much agree that our grammatical skills have taken a complete nosedive with the advent of email and text messaging. I mean, really, what's wrong with spelling words correctly and using punctuation? Best of all, Freeman is proposing a "slow communication" movement, asking us as a society to stop sending so much email, and - gasp - picking up a phone to call someone, meeting in person for coffee, etc. Or even asking us to write an "old-fashioned" letter and sending it via the U. S. Postal Service, something most no longer do. I, for one, am all for this propsoal!

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