Undercover Economist

Last updated: June 2, 2012 12:03 am

Beware email’s cunning little ways

It has many key attributes but email is still inferior to pen and paper
Illustration showing email on an iPad©Raymond Biesinger

I recently heard a question that brought me up short: what does email want? The questioner was Tom Chatfield, author of How to Thrive in the Digital Age, although the question itself draws some inspiration from an older philosopher of technology, Kevin Kelly. Of course, email does not literally want anything at all, but Chatfield’s question was designed to provoke some reflection about the logic of email – a logic that we have come to take for granted.

So let’s list some key attributes of email. First, email, like the old-fashioned stuff that comes through the letter-box, is an equal-opportunity system. Anyone with your address can reach you from anywhere in the world. Most email programs will try to catch outright junk but otherwise treat all incoming mail in the same way. Facebook, for example, behaves very differently.

Second, email programs do, however, have their own priorities: they venerate whatever is new, placing it at the top of your inbox, highlighting it, and if you are not careful, interrupting you to announce its arrival.

Third, emails don’t expire. I never questioned this until I began to use Twitter, a service that simply assumes its users will not bother to read anything that isn’t up to date.

Fourth, emails provide a written record. This can be very useful (and occasionally dangerous) but it encourages your inbox to become your “To Do” list. If someone asks me to do something, or the idea pops into my head that something should be done, I will often write it down. But email is “performative” – it constitutes its own written reminder.

Email is also a system, and we are locked into it just as we are locked into the Qwerty keyboard, 240-volt mains electricity, or the rather unhygienic convention of shaking hands. It is possible for an individual to opt out of such systems, but usually easier to adapt yourself than to adapt the system.

Finally, because email is very cheap and easy to send, there’s a lot of it about. You may have noticed.

None of this is dramatic news, but I found thinking about it in this way profoundly helpful. Every technology has its own logic. Facebook “wants” us to log in a lot and to interact with each other – hence the ability to “like” posts, to comment, to “like” comments, and the constant stream of notifications about all of this. This is sinister, but less insidious because it is so brazen. Facebook the technology has metaphorical wants that reflect the entirely non-metaphorical strategy of Facebook the company.

Email, on the other hand, wasn’t designed with the conscious aim of transferring your “To Do” list to the inbox. That’s just the way things tend to gravitate. And whether you are using Facebook or email or any other technology, it’s a good idea to do so with eyes wide open. As Chatfield argues in his book, many people are now connected to the internet more than half of their waking hours, thanks to the spread of computers, tablets and powerful smartphones. This is not necessarily a bad thing – but it is not a good thing either.

Many of us wage a constant battle against distraction. Rather fewer of us, I suspect, make very careful, conscious choices about when to be online and when not to be. This is a shame, because it doesn’t take much introspection to realise that some things are simply much easier to do when online, while other things are much easier to do when offline. That difference calls for a deliberate exercise of choice; most of us allow circumstances to make the choice for us.

After all, we know what Facebook wants and what email wants. But what do that trusty pairing of a pen and a sheet of blank paper want? They want you to think for yourself, and to make your mark.

Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’

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