Monday, July 26, 2010
Having just listened to the author of The Tyranny of E-mail in an hour-long interview, it seems to me the book should be titled The Tyranny of E-mail Used Really Poorly in a Corporate Environment.
In the Forum show I listened to, author John Freeman focused on how people's lives get taken over by e-mail. They check it as soon as they wake up, right before they go to bed, and constantly throughout the day. (The book says they even use e-mail in the bath.) They use e-mail when making a phone call or having a face-to-face discussion would be more effective. Their e-mail time takes away from the time spent with people in real life, including their families.
And I have no doubt that this is true for some people. Certainly, workplaces that expect people to be checking e-mail all hours of the day can create real problems for their employees.
But the flip side is this: I also know plenty of people who can spend more time with friends and family because of e-mail. They can work from home, which provides them with more away-from-work time because there's no long commute. They can take more (and longer) vacations, doing just brief work-related e-mail check-ins.
Like any tool, e-mail can be misused. But it can also save time, allow us to respect another's time, and make us better writers. I recently had a straightforward question for my brother; the question didn't need an instant reply. I sent an e-mail carefully explaining my situation, and got exactly the answer I needed the next morning. (For those of you who are wondering, the question had to due with which iPad would best suit my needs: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB.)
But I don't communicate with my brother entirely by e-mail. I got together with him and my sister-in-law for dinner the prior weekend, and I called my brother when I had something more nuanced to discuss with him. But the e-mail I sent didn't need this type of interaction, and it allowed him to reply at a time that suited his schedule; I didn't interrupt him for no good reason.
And as a self-employed person, I see e-mail as a source of empowerment, not tyranny; it gives me one more way to communicate with clients, and it lets me easily correspond with colleagues around the globe. Like anyone else, I sometimes get behind in clearing out my in box - but that's very different from feeling that e-mail is taking over my life.
It seems Ben Yagoda of The New York Times - who read the book, which I have not - had a similar reaction to it. He wrote: "In his zeal to expose e-mail’s dark side, Freeman, the editor of Granta, ignores its good and useful features."
So e-mail can work in opposite ways. It can control our time - or it can help us make better use of our time.
Do you feel tyrannized by e-mail? Leave a comment (or send an e-mail) and let me know!
The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You
Filing the E-Mail - Or Not
Email Replies: Is Shorter Always Better?