except for all the others

Farhad Manjoo thinks the Clinton campaign email scandal proves that email in general needs to be ditched:

Email sometimes tricks us into feeling efficient, but it rarely is. Because it’s asynchronous, and because there are no limits on space and time, it often leads to endless, pointless ruminations. If they had ditched email and just held a 15-minute meeting, members of the campaign could have hashed out the foreign-agent decision more quickly in private.

In other words, limits often help. Get on the phone, make a decision, ditch your inbox. The world will be better off for it.

Sounds great — but what if “members of the campaign” weren’t all in the same place? I guess then Manjoo would say “get on the phone” — but have you ever tried arranging a conference call? If more than three people are involved it’s next to impossible. Talk about “inefficient”!

Also, when people hold a conference call to make a significant decision, it’s typically recorded so there will be a record of what they’ve decided, which is necessary in order to avoid the “that’s not how I remember it” problem — but that means that you have something that can be stolen later by nefarious parties.

Manjoo recommends Slack or Hipchat, which can work, but only when the conversation is among people wholly within a given organization.

Email drives me crazy the way it drives everyone else crazy, but I can set aside certain times of the day in which to use it. If I had to have my work interrupted eleven times a day for phone conferences, at someone else’s convenience, or had to have a Slack window open and pinging merrily away all day long, I’d never get anything done. Churchill’s famous comment about democracy — “the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried” — might be adapted here: email is the worst form of business communication, except for all the others that Manjoo recommends.

Solnit’s nostalgia

Rebecca Solnit writes,

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.

You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words….

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Solnit is one of the finest writers of her generation, so it’s a bit sad to see her recycling these tired complaints. Even if every word of her essay is true, it has been said thousands of times already. Sven Birkerts got it all into The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, and since then people have just been doodling variations on his themes.

But here’s the problem I have with all screeds of this particular type. If you happen to be old enough to remember the days of letter-writing that Solnit limns so nostalgically, I invite you to perform the following thought-experiment:

  • Estimate the number of letters you wrote in a given year.
  • Estimate the number of letters you meant to write, planned to write, knew you ought to write, and yet never quite got around to writing.
  • Calculate the ratio of those numbers.

In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter. But a moment’s reflection shows that that’s not true. People send emails who never would have gotten around to writing letters or even making phone calls; people (mostly younger ones) who find email too frictiony a medium might send a hundred texts a day. If we’re going to understand how these technologies are changing us, we need to make the right comparisons: not one long hand-written letter to one brief email, but one long hand-written letter to several emails, or dozens of texts exchanged with multiple people in a given day.

An average twenty-year-old today writes far, far more to his or her friends than the average twenty-year-old of any time in human history. His or her experience is remarkable primarily for how textual it is, how many written words comprise it. We should start by acknowledging that fact, and if we go on to form a critique, we should have a clearer-eyed view of the past as well.

All that said, there are some good points about distraction and the alternatives to distraction in Solnit’s essay; I’ll try to write about those another time. But the nostalgia here is really problematic.

email, we hardly knew ye

Cringely is sad about the decline and fall of email. Me? Not so much. I like the lightweight minimalism of text/IM/Twitter, and use them when I can in preference to email.

That said, there’s one very important way in which email is superior to those other technologies: it is completely asynchronous. People may send emails hoping for a quick reply, but they generally know better than to expect one. But if you’ve tweeted recently, people expect quick responses to replies and direct messages, and of course, nothing says “Interrupt me!” like that green light next to your name in someone’s IM client. (Whether texting is similarly always-on depends on how old you are, I suppose.)
I haven’t figured out quite how to manage all this, and maybe I never will. Typically I set my IM status to “invisible,” but I don’t want my friends to do the same — if they did, how would I know when to send them a message? So I fall short of the categorical imperative there. Basically, I am coming to realize, I want a medium of communication which allows me to interrupt friends whenever I want to without ever allowing them to interrupt me. I ain’t asking for much.


Thomas Mallon has collected a book of letters, and laments the loss of letter-writing culture. Louis Bayard thinks things may not be all that simple:

There is, in short, a reflexive melancholy to Mallon’s self-appointed mission, and I’m not convinced that all his belletristesse is merited. (Then again, waiting for the mailman has always struck me as a dubious pleasure.) When I sift through my past week’s electronic in-box, I find easily half a dozen messages that qualify as letters in every traditional sense. They are coherently structured, written with care and design. They enlighten, they illuminate, they endear. They even follow the old epistolary ritual of signing off (not “yours ever,” but some venerable variant: “yours” . . . “cheers” . . . “all best” . . . “xo”). My e-mail may not ascend to the level of Madame de Sévigné, but then, neither did Madame de Sévigné all the time.More to the point, these messages would probably never have come my way if the senders had been obliged to take out pen and paper. Indeed, it is the very facility of electronic communication that makes the Luddite soul tremble. When Mallon complains that e-mail has “made the telegram’s instant high dudgeon affordable to all,” it is clear that the access troubles him as much as the dudgeon. Look at me! I’m a belletrist, too! But does the relative ease of an e-mail’s composition necessarily detract from its value? Are postage stamps a bona fide of literary intent?

I’m reminded of Alex Beam’s regret that “the 25-cent paperback” somehow cheapened reading. Here again, we see the value of reading and writing yoked to an economics of scarcity. Sad, and wrong.

fixing email

My recent exodus from Gmail and consequent return to the world of the desktop email client has got me thinking about what an email application really fundamentally is.It’s three things, it seems to me: it’s a text editor, it’s a database, and it’s a file manager. The problem is that there is no email client that fulfills all these functions really well. And probably no two users will weigh the relative importance of these functions in precisely the same way.Take Gmail, for instance. It has always been an extremely responsive, extremely reliable database. And as its system of labels, filters, and “Labs” commands developed — Oh how I miss you, Send and Archive! — it became an increasingly sophisticated file manager. But its text editing capabilities were limited and awkward from day 1. As much fun as it was to set up an organizational system in Gmail, it was that much of a pain to write anything in the darn thing.Contrast that to an ancient favorite of the geeky Mac crowd, Mailsmith — none of that newfangled IMAP crap for me, sonny! — which borrows its text-editing engine from BBEdit and therefore in this respect blows every other email client in the world out of the water. It has a pretty good filtering system too, with fine-grained controls, though in my experience the filters do not work consistently. But its database, while solid, is excruciatingly slow — I mean, go-out-and-have-lunch-and-it-still-hasn’t-finished-your-search slow — so that and its single-minded devotion to POP make it unusable.If swift and sophisticated file management is your sine qua non, then you can’t do better than — well, mutt or alpine, assuming you don’t mind working from the command line. Watching a true mutt master compose, send, reply to, and file emails is like watching the knife tricks at Benihana. But mutt and alpine obviously aren’t serious options for many users.So we’re still waiting, I think, for an email app that puts it all together. Maybe Letters, the early-in-development email client for alpha Mac geeks, will do it. But I doubt it. My guess is that email will be replaced by a wholly different communications technology before anyone figures out how to make an email client that isn’t seriously compromised in one or more of its functions.

more about email

Continuing the email theme, here’s a familiar lament from Megan Marshall: email is so impersonal in comparison to handwritten letters:

“Please keep me alive with letters,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in 1952 from Oxford to his sister Kamla in Trinidad. Nineteen and devastated by the rejection of his first novel, he was suffering from a loneliness so severe it resulted in a nervous breakdown. Maybe Naipaul wouldn’t have felt so lonely if he and Kamla could have Skyped regularly or filed updates for each other and scads of “friends” on Facebook. Or would Vido have felt even worse? Is the virtual friend any more than a tease when genuine comfort is needed? Please keep me alive with your e-mails — ? It’s an appeal only Google could love.

So when people are separated from their loved ones, why do they Skype or email or IM instead of writing letters? Are they just stupid? Or do they want their loneliness to be assuaged now rather than three days from now?

Many years ago I spent a summer teaching in Nigeria, and I missed my wife very badly. I wanted to hear her voice. So I caught a ride to the nearest city, Ilorin and found a telephone office. It consisted of a desk with a clerk who took down your information and collected your money, and a set of five or six booths with telephones. I waited a few minutes for my turn, got a phone, and (through a scratchy and echo-filled connection) got to talk to Teri and find out that she was well and tell her that I was well.

Perhaps a letter would have been more romantic in the eyes of future generations — and we might well treasure, in our old age, letters we had exchanged then. Those are considerations. But at the time I wasn’t thinking about any of that, because I missed my beloved. If email or IM had been available I would have used that, and Skype video would have been best of all. So sue me.

(Also, shouldn’t Marshall at least acknowledge that this lament has been written several thousand times since the invention of email?)

email and other gluts

Nick Bilton’s “10 Proposals for Fixing the E-mail Glut” is mostly silly — limit emails to 140 characters? — but has one legitimately interesting idea:

Clay Shirky, author of the book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” believes that “we don’t have information overload; we have filter failure.” I completely agree with this, but creating filters can become a chore too. My solution would add a single-click button called Auto Filter. Once pressed, it would do its best to analyze the message and create a new filter, and then file future messages into this new category.

Presumably the filters would only need to be new when you first started using the feature: after a short time the app would start adding new messages to already existing filters. (Otherwise you’d have a new filter for every message.) Another possibility would be to set up some filters manually at the beginning, and ask the app to try to fit new messages into one of the existing filters, only creating a new one if it can’t find any plausible matches.

This is one step beyond Gmail’s already excellent filtering system, which works only on the basis of criteria you explicitly set up. (The “smart folders” used in Mac OS X’s Mail application, and elsewhere in the system, are exactly the same thing: saved searches.) All that said, this is the kind of thing that should only be used by people who get email in enormous volume, because it’s a recipe for shunting messages into folders that you never look at.

I expect Gmail to offer something like this before too long. A number of desktop apps do this kind of automatic sorting already: my “everything Bucket,” Together offers the option to auto-tag new files based on existing tags — though in my experience it doesn’t do this very well — and many people are devoted to DEVONthink because of its “Artificial Intelligence,” that is, its ability to sort and auto-classify large numbers of documents. I think addressing “filter failure” will be a major goal of many kinds of software in the coming years, and I expect Google to lead the way in this endeavor.

One more thing: How long will people be worrying about an “email glut”? Already many people use email only for business purposes, having redirected their personal communications to Facebook and Twitter. My teenage son, for instance, gets and sends absolutely zero personal emails. When email is a place for business and business only, some important filtering has been done.

asynchrony, how I love you

Okay, so, long post here. Stop tweeting and pay attention. Jessica Vascellaro has an essay in the WSJ in which she says,

Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine.We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun.

And then she goes on to do the usual thing, which is to say, in effect, “this new technology speeds everything up and increases our connectivity, and that’s good, but what are we giving up? What are we losing? Whatever happened to meaningful in-person face-to-face human-to-human communication?”Lev Grossman’s essay in Time about Google Wave hits many of the same notes:

Google Wave is, in short, a remarkably full-featured collaboration and communication tool, powerful enough for enterprise customers and easy enough for civilians. It’s also a warning shot across the bow of pretty much every software company anywhere. It’s amazing how many people’s grills Google is getting up into with this single product. It’s real time like AIM and Twitter (and it can talk to Twitter by importing and exporting tweets). It’s social and shares media, like Facebook. Anybody who makes an e-mail client or collaboration software should be paying attention to Wave. This is vintage Google: give away a product that does stuff your competitors charge money for, thereby burnishing your public image and, at the same time, sapping your competitors’ will to live.But Wave isn’t actually an e-mail killer. In practice, it’s more like an insanely rich IM client. E-mail is asynchronous; you can wait an hour or (if you are, like me, a bad person) a week to answer it. But because Wave operates in real time, it demands immediate attention like an IM or a phone call or, for that matter, a crying baby. When Wave is up, it’s hard to focus on anything else. That isn’t a defect, but it does narrow the scope of its usefulness. Getting more information right away isn’t always the most efficient way to work.

This is how these essays usually go: this is really cool, but is it tethering us more closely to our computers? (Interestingly, Wave doesn’t seem, at the moment, to be reckoning with the way more and more people are using smartphones to connect to the world.) Nicholas Carr is refreshingly unambiguous on these points:

The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.

In this particular case I’m with Carr. I’ve only been playing around with Wave for a week or so, but I don’t like the demands it makes — or will make, once enough people are using it to make it worthwhile. (Right now it’s like Union Station at 3 A.M.)Why do I like Twitter and despise Facebook? Because Facebook is symmetrical — if you friend me, I friend you — while Twitter is asymmetrical — I can follow you, but you don’t have to follow me. Why do I like email better than the telephone or IM or Wave? Because it’s asynchronous: I catch up on email when I can, not when you write, and I expect you to do the same. I can’t do my work unless I have long periods away from the computer and the iPhone. Asynchrony is my friend. My best friend. My BFF.

email as marginal technology

Courtesy of my New Atlantis colleague Ari Schulman I see this article by Alastair Croll lamenting that his "inbox is broken . . . in a fundamental, inboxes-will-never-be-the-same-again kind of way." Only a minority of items in his recent email inbox, he says, were conversations he had with other folks; the rest were "records of things I’d done, people who’d followed me on social networks, bookings I’d made, confirmations of sites I’d signed up for, and so on." And he wants his email inbox to be the one place where all the pieces of his social life are organized.I wonder how many other people will be wanting the same thing in the coming years. I think of my sixteen-year-old son for whom email is a completely marginal technology: it tells him when someone has posted something to his Facebook page, but he already knows that information anyway. His mom and dad are almost the only people who communicate with him via email. If you simply took his email account away from him I don't think he would miss it at all. And he's not unusual in this respect — many of my students only check their email to hear from their parents or their teachers.Maybe we do need a centralized inbox for our lives, but it seems unlikely to me that email will be the place where that happens — except maybe for old codgers like Alistair and me.

the age of correspondence

Fred Wilson says that we have entered an “age of correspondence” because now we write so much more than we talk on the phone. This has been noted before: if the telephone brought to an end the great age of letter-writing, a different kind of writing has been created by the age of email and text-messaging. There are a lot of things that could be said about this, and I’ll probably say some of them later, but in this post I just want to reflect on one thing: the anxiety this situation is causing libraries and archives — the institutions that collect the correspondence of famous people. Fifty years ago those custodians worried that the telephone was going to eliminate correspondence, that the revelatory letters of great men and women were going to be replaced by electrical signals that vanish into the air, never to be captured, irrecoverable. And there’s no doubt that people wrote less in the Telephone Age; but plenty of correspondence has remained for archives to collect and scholars to study, especially among writers. One has to suspect that many authors kept writing letters precisely in order to create a future archival presence for themselves. Don’t think they’re not aware of such things: even in the eighteenth century Sir Horace Walpole, one of the great letter-writers of that or any other day, knew perfectly well that his letters would eventually be collected and published. And maybe authors today are carefully preserving their emails in Walpoleian fashion — scholars hope so. But even if they are, it’s hard to tell what this means for the archivists. Even if an author wills her collected correspondence to a library, how will that be done? Will the executor of her estate email a zipped folder of text files to the head librarian? And then will the libraries hoard such collections, making them available only to the few properly qualified — or will they just post them on the internet? In any case it’s hard to imagine families getting rich after a bidding war for a recently-deceased artist’s letters and papers, as has happened so often in the past. I also imagine that scholars in the future will spend a lot of time scouring the web for evidence of authors’ online presence. If someone decades from now ends up writing a biography of the wonderful John Crowley, surely he or she will notice that Crowley had his own blog; but will he or she find that Crowley once discomposed John Holbo by commenting on a blog post Holbo wrote about him? And if someone writes a book claiming that James Wood was the great literary critic of his day, will that scholar discover Wood’s response to Daniel Green’s snarky blog post about him? This kind of thing happens all the time. Of course, there are also those authors, like Lee Siegel, who participate in conversations pseudonymously or anonymously. How many of those interventions will be discovered? Many questions to be answered in the coming years. I will just add this, though: in writing my books about W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis, I spent a lot of time poring over their correspondence in libraries — primarily the New York Public Library for Auden and Wheaton’s own Marion Wade Center for Lewis. Some decades from now it’s unlikely that many scholars will need to travel to particular archives or libraries in order to do their research: they will be able to do a great deal of it from their laptops, wherever they happen to be. But certain experiences will be lost: the quality and feel of the paper the authors wrote on, for sure; in many cases (whenever email dominates) the variations in handwriting and even in typescript. The material conditions of authors’ lives will be less vivid to scholars, with what consequences I do not know. I have a vivid memory of my study of the Auden letters in the NYPL: they were organized by recipient, and every now and then I would come across a letter scrawled — Auden had horrific handwriting — on the curious orange stationery of the In Town Inn of Lubbock, Texas. They all bore the same date — it was the late Fifties or early Sixties, I believe — which suggests that Auden didn’t find a lot to do that night he spent in Lubbock. I enjoy imagining what his room must have looked like, as he sat at the little desk and dashed off letters to friends, pausing from time to time to take what he called “an analeptic swig” from his flask of hooch. And I think of his wonderful comic poem “On the Circuit”. Future scholars are likely to have fewer small pleasures, small moments of imaginative vision, like that one.