Monday, September 19, 2011

John Freeman on the Tyranny of E-Mail

Please Don’t Send

By Dylan Foley

My name is Dylan and I am an e-mail addict. I just got my first iPhone, and like a rat in a cocaine study, I have stopped eating and ignore my children. All I do is check my e-mail. I have hit rock bottom.

Across my desk comes a book that may save my tortured soul. In John Freeman’s “The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox”(Scribner, $25), the editor of the literary journal Granta puts forth persuasive arguments that e-mail is destroying intimacy and business is drowning in electronic communication. Freeman asserts that what is needed is a “slow communication movement” that returns people to telephone calls and face-to-face meetings, and fosters a judicious and sparing use of e-mail.

Freeman’s “a-ha” moment for the book came during a relentless flood of e-mail. “One day, I went out for coffee with my friend, the novelist Whitney Terrell,” said Freeman in an interview in New York City. “I came back after 45 minutes and there were 75 new messages. I had this moment when I realized that society is not biologically, cognitively or emotionally able to deal with this. We are trying to keep up with a machine. Technology is supposed to make it easier to communicate, but e-mail increases our isolation.”

Freeman has a created a beautifully written book that is both a meditation on the meaning of communication and a manifesto about how to curb the excesses of e-mail use. He takes the reader on a 4000-year trip through the history of communication, from Sumerian clay tablets to royal runners and messengers on horseback. The world explodes and speeds up with the telegraph, intercontinental telephone cables and finally e-mail, where the average office worker is now buried under 200 messages a day, half of them misinterpreted.

With smart phones and other wireless devices, e-mail has permeated every aspect of American life. “It used to be considered incredibly invasive when someone from your job would call you with a with a mundane piece of news during your vacation,” said Freeman. “We take our Blackberries on vacation now, meaning we don’t have vacations. E-mail has obliterated the 9 to 5 workday. The division between life and work , already blurred, has been destroyed.”

In the past decade, the 36-year-old Freeman has turned himself into one of the most prominent literary critics in America, writing for as many as 200 publications in the United States and abroad, including the Denver Post. In his book, he points out the decline in the quality of American communication, where letter writing has almost died out, and an office culture where American workers spend almost 40 percent of their day answering e-mails.

“I didn’t want this book to be only an intellectual exercise,” said Freeman. “I wanted this book to be as accessible as possible. I really want to change people’s lives.”

Freeman felt he had to start his book with a chronology of written communication. “I wanted to put the idea of communication in a broader context,” he said. “Whenever a situation is out of control, it is good to step back and look at it. I didn’t want to write the whole book as a manifesto. I didn’t want to write a polemic that added more yelling to the debate. My book is basically a meditation on our pell-mell electronic communication.”

Misunderstood and snarky e-mails have sadly become the norm in America’s business cultures and personal lives. “There is a communication blackout,” said Freeman. “You don’t have a person’s face in front of you to show what you are saying is understood. There is no tone to interpret. You spend more time with your computer screen than you spend with your spouse. We write too quickly and send too quickly.”

With office e-mail, Big Brother really is watching you with ease. “A huge number of corporations monitor their employees’ e-mails,” said Freeman. “It is as if everything is typed on a huge carbon copy, ready to be searched.”

What you write may also be read by hundreds of people in a matter of seconds. “E-mail can be so easily forwarded,” noted Freeman. “To tamper with the U.S. mail is a felony, but forwarding an e-mail is fast and happens all the time.”

Freeman offers a bold 10-step plan, including not sending unimportant e-mails, only answering your e-mail twice a day, actually reading your e-mail well, and writing concise answers. Freeman offers low-tech solutions, like keeping a to-do list on a legal pad, to manage your e-mail scrupulously, and replacing e-mail with the phone and actually meeting with people. The radical part of the plan is that if less e-mail is sent, the flood of national e-mail that has overwhelmed our public and private worlds will become more manageable.

“We collectively created this monster of e-mail by using it so much,” said Freeman. “The quickest way to diffuse it is to collectively disengage from it, because every e-mail you don’t send is one that somebody doesn’t have to deal with. The effect of a lot of people not sending e-mails would be enormous.”

As the jet-setting editor of Granta, the influential British literary journal, Freeman keeps apartments in both London and New York. He admitted that checking his e-mail only twice a day is just a pipe dream.

“I can’t realistically do that,” said Freeman. “I have two cell phones and four computers,” citing the complications of an intercontinental life. “The 10 points are suggestions, a guide.”

Freeman still valiantly tries to hack a private life out for himself from the treacherous clutches of e-mail. “The way I cope with e-mail is by not checking for long periods on the weekend,” he said. “My e-mail message says that if people need to reach me, they can call me.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

(This article was originally published in the Denver Post in October 2009)

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