–Reviewed by Angilee Shah
It is not particularly surprising that a ubiquitous literary critic finds our growing e-mail culture soul-crushing. John Freeman was a freelance writer before becoming the editor of Granta, the century-old literary magazine. He is dedicated to books, to narrative, to all things that pithy online interactions are not.
So it is also not surprising that The Tyranny of E-mail is a slow and reasoned plea for, well, slow and reasoned communication. It begins with a lament for inky love letters and continues on a lyrical history of the written word delivered, from the kings and generals who sent news on horses and pigeons to the revolutionizing speed of the telegram. Freeman connects today’s common e-mail problems – flaming, spam and privacy – with similar issues wrought by the creation of an affordable postal service.
The book is speckled with beautiful metaphors and cringe-worthy statistics. “E-mail bankruptcy is the subprime mortgage crisis of our era,” Freeman declares in his introduction. “Sixty-five percent of North Americans spend more time with their computer than their spouse,” he reports. “We check e-mail more often than we drink water.” One study found that in 2006 that the average office worker sends and receives 126 e-mails per day, and that this year, the number has risen to 200.
Freeman cautions readers about the well-known drawbacks to our connected lifestyle – privacy, spam, phishing, and e-mail as “the longest employee leash ever invented.” But it his is philosophical discussion of e-mail that is most compelling. With a nod to science fiction, Freeman worries about the “man-computer embrace,” and equates constant e-mail connectivity with having other people’s voices in your head all day. An e-mail queue amounts to a distracting to-do list forcing workers to continually multitask. Far from being more productive, our expectations of immediate communication have “narrowed our cognitive function down to a core.” Freeman continues, “The computer and e-mail were sold to us as tools for liberation, but they have actually inhibited our ability to conduct our lives mindfully, with the deliberation and consideration that are the hallmark of true agency.”
The Tyranny of E-mail makes a convincing argument. After all, how many people wake up in the morning committed to spending half their workday responding to e-mails, but end up doing just that? Freeman’s rallying cry for a “Slow Communication Movement” is not a diatribe against the Internet, but a reiteration of the things that make us human, and a reminder that e-mail conversations cannot always satisfy those needs. Speed, he says, does not mean progress. By changing our e-mail habits – sending fewer, better e-mails – we can change our relationship with people and the world.
Excerpt: “The ultimate form of progress, however, is learning to decide what is working and what is not; and working at this pace, e-mailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to change it.”
Further Reading: Interface Culture and The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at www.angileeshah.com.
*Photo courtesy MyEyeSees.