The Tyranny of Email

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Mar 12, 2011

"Let an e-mail linger for a day, and you risk a rift in a relationship."
John Freeman

For anyone who has a computer, e-mail has become a routine part of life. Any moment, updates with all of their variety and flavor can appear on our screen causing us to laugh or cry, think or act. Friends and colleagues from around the world or in the next door office can communicate with us by the simple click of the "send" key. 

I recently sent an e-mail message to my friend, Doug, in Nairobi, Kenya and within an hour he had read my message and replied. 

The VFCC Music Department needed to hire a narrator for the video transitions in the "Christmas at Valley Forge" program. A man in Texas was hired for just a few dollars and, after he was e-mailed his lines, he recorded them and e-mailed them to our Digital Media specialists who inserted them in the video here on our campus, all in a matter of a couple of hours in time for the concert. 

I know I date myself when I say this, but this kind of technology continues to amaze me. Even a few years ago when I needed some late night x-rays at the Phoenixville Hospital, the doctor e-mailed them to Australia where specialists who were awake and on call read them and instantly sent their readings to Phoenixville as though they were in the room next door. 

But with all of the advantages of e-mail, do you ever find yourself overwhelmed with the rising river of messages which keep flowing into your life? More than once I've turned on my computer to find it full and overflowing with messages galore. 

I think that's why John Freeman's The Tyranny of E-mail (2009) speaks loudly to me. Did you know that in 2009, it was estimated that the average corporate worker spent 40 percent of his or her day sending and receiving some two hundred messages? Instead of walking down the hall, picking up the phone, or sending an interoffice memo, we e-mail. 

E-mail protocol becomes a huge challenge. In 2006 a Cisco research paper concluded that failing to respond to a sender can lead to a swift breakdown in trust. Lose an e-mail forever, and you are sitting on an unexploded land mine. 

Everything must be attended to - and if it isn't, chances are another e-mail will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all. 

Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society took a bold step by declaring "e-mail bankruptcy." In the summer of 2004 he wrote, "Dear person who sent me a yet unanswered e-mail, I apologize, but I am declaring an e-mail bankruptcy." Ironically, his plea for a reprieve generated a "torrent" of new e-mails. 

Freeman talks of "working at the speed of e-mail" which blurs one's attentions as we become "task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer." He even suggests that "e-mail is the same way slot machines are addictive." In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. And ironically, tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend more time apart. 

Of course, e-mail is not the only way we stay in touch with each other in this technological age. When I look at my list of Facebook friends I realize how easy it is to sit in front of my computer and write new notes or respond to ones which have been sent to me. 

The title of this article says it all: "The Tyranny of E-mail." Do I love mail? Yes. Do I love e-mail? Yes. But Freeman's words remind me of the need to ponder this matter so I always use e-mail rather than allow e-mail to use me. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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