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The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

3.5 7
by John Freeman

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The award-winning president of the National Book Critics Circle examines the astonishing growth of email—and how it is changing our lives, not always for the better.

John  Freeman  is  one  of  America’s  pre-eminent  literary critics; now in this, his first book, he presents an elegant and erudite


The award-winning president of the National Book Critics Circle examines the astonishing growth of email—and how it is changing our lives, not always for the better.

John  Freeman  is  one  of  America’s  pre-eminent  literary critics; now in this, his first book, he presents an elegant and erudite investigation into a technology that has revolutionized the way we work, communicate, and even think.

There’s no question that email is an explosive phenomenon. The first email, developed for military use, was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion users. The average corporate employee now receives upwards of 130 emails per day; by 2009 that number is expected to reach nearly 200. And the flood of messages is ceaseless: for increasing numbers of people, email means work now occupies home time as well as office hours.

Drawing extensively on the research of linguists, behavioral scientists, cultural critics, and philosophers, Freeman examines the way email is taking a mounting toll on a variety of behavior, reducing time for leisure and contemplation, despoiling subtlety and expression in language, and separating us from each other in the unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox. He enters a plea for communication which is slower, more nuanced, and, above all, more sociable.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Once upon a time, when one person wished to communicate feelings or news to another, it was necessary to compose the text, mold a clay tablet, and etch the words into the clay using a reed before it hardened. The very form of this sort of communication meant that selected messages were of great import to their authors. Clay tablets would never have inspired 3.2 billion users to receive and send thousands of mostly needless messages each day. That distinction goes to e-mail.

\ \ Thanks to e-mail, we live in an anxiety-ridden, reactive state, and rather than give each question the contemplation it deserves, we fire off a quick response. "Our minds, augmented now by the largest, most usable database in the world, are hampered in basic functions," Freeman writes. Virtual relationships, and the careless verbiage inherent in them, are speeding the decay of the very traits that comprise the best of humanity.

\ \ It's time, Freeman argues, to step back, and he's right. "The computer and e-mail were sold to us as tools of liberation, but they have actually inhibited our ability to conduct our lives mindfully," he declares. We need to meet in person, to talk, and to observe each other's gestures and facial expressions, because real friends and true relationships are in danger of following the clay tablet into the annals of history. Read Freeman's illuminating book and feel the shackles fall. \ (Holiday 2009 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
We've all experienced the “tyranny of e–mail”: the endless onslaught, the continual distraction, the superfluous messages clogging our inboxes. Freeman, acting editor of Granta magazine, captures viscerally “the buzzing, humming megalopolis” that “tunes into this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive.” And he draws effectively on psychological and social research to describe the harm this “tsunami” of e-mail is causing: fragmenting our days, fracturing our concentration, diverting us from other sources of information and face-to-face encounters. Freeman is best when he is on point. But when he drifts into history—granted, to make the salient point that this feeling of life speeding out of control overwhelmed people with the arrival of the railroad and the telegraph (though, strangely, he omits the telephone, our e-mail enabler)—he offers more postal and telegraphic details than most people will want and hammers his main points into the ground (e.g., we need to be needed, and receiving e-mail gratifies that need). But his closing “manifesto for a slow communication movement” could fuel an e-mail rebellion, and his tips on how to slow down are sensible and mostly doable, except perhaps for the most hard-core e-mail addicts. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Freeman, literary book critic, former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and now the new American editor of Granta magazine, examines email communication technologies and behaviors from the vantage point of the history of correspondence. Treating email as a highly disruptive technology in our personal, social, and work lives, he reviews the effects handwritten mail, typewriters, postcards, and telegrams have had on our civilization. With that foundation laid, email is angrily attacked from every conceivable perspective. There are many insights, such as how email changes how we communicate, what we communicate, our sense of space and time, and who communicates to whom; however, many topics—e.g., the ramifications of unlimited email storage, email monitoring by employers, and correspondence that will be lost to history—are covered too thinly. Freeman's go-slow argument wanders considerably to throw punches at all kinds of online behaviors and technologies including sexting and egosurfing. VERDICT Luddites will gleefully race through this book in a few hours while others will have trouble following the argument and will skim—ironically, this is the very reading behavior Freeman abhors. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/09.]—James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Tech., Toronto
Kirkus Reviews
A cool yet unreserved manifesto against the drug-like, numbing consequences of e-mail correspondence and the alienating paradox at the heart of our so-called "connected" online lives. It's when e-mail overshadows those who use it, writes literary critic and Granta American editor Freeman, that we're in genuine trouble of surrendering our relationships, acumen, physical and mental health, creativity and time, all for the sake of convenience. The author is no Luddite, however, nor is the book a regressive polemic. Correspondence has always pursued expediency, writes Freeman, and he readily acknowledges the digital media's manifold benefits over previous modes. But as he repeatedly points out, e-mail is only the latest iteration of this logical progression from primarily geocentric (and agonizingly slow-to-arrive) pre-post office correspondence to the telegram to the first e-mail ever sent-on Oct. 29, 1969, over the pre-Internet ARPANET. We built these roads toward nonlocal communication, Freeman argues, but we now need to choose when and how fast to walk them, because speed "is not a neutral deity." Nor is e-mail's ubiquity neutral. No downtime and increasingly fewer chances to unplug both give rise to isolation, addictive behavior and a host of other negative psychological problems including sleep deprivation and degraded focus and memory function. Freeman cites numerous studies and quotes everyone from Bill McKibben to Susan Sontag in support of his central thesis that our hyperconnected lives are in reality anything but. The author's ten-part program to break what he considers a dangerous addiction to e-mail is predicated on a simple, potentially divisive premise: Don't send one. Freemanis a matchless writer with a talent for such bombshells, and his conclusions are rational, practical and wholly refreshing. First steps toward a Slow Communication movement?
From the Publisher
“[A] thoughtful and provocative book.”—Seattle Times

“We live in a culture devoted to technology, and yet most of us cannot find the time to consider its history or its consequences. John Freeman has made the time, and has thought carefully about how we have gotten here…. Freeman knows his history, and he offers an engaging account of the evolution of correspondence.”—Bookforum

“An elegant self-help book. . . . Freeman uses lush prose and invokes examples from great literature to make his points. He comes at things not from a giddy utopian perspective that permeates most writing about technology but from a humanist one. It makes the book refreshing and powerful.”—Boston Globe

“[Freeman] brings the reader a fresh, intelligent look at email’s infiltration into and influence over every aspect of 21st century life. . . . The Tyranny of E-mail serves as an engaging reality check.”—The Daily Beast

“Freeman offers up fascinating trivia . . . [and] makes a persuasive case that e-mail has at once corroded epistolary communication and strangled workplace productivity.”—The New Yorker

“E-mail is eating us alive . . . Luckily for us [John Freeman] has a solution.”—Chicago Tribune

“A book with a title this bold and provocative . . . requires an airtight and compelling case to back it up. To keep us reading, the book must also inform and entertain. John Freeman . . . delivers on all counts.”—The Oregonian

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Read an Excerpt

The oldest love poem in the world sits behind a glass case at the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, where it was placed on display on Valentine’s Day 2006. Carved in cuneiform, it rests on a clay tablet the size of a piece of toast, the script as small as bird tracks. “Bridegroom, you have taken pleasure of me,” the poet, a ghost lost to time, pleads in Sumerian. “You have captivated me: let me stand trembling before you.”

Love may not be forever, but this expression of it has outlasted swords forged by fire, cities designed by the finest architects, the largest machine ever to fly, and the most titanic boat ever to sail. To write his verse, the poet would have had to compose the lines in his head or recite them to a friend. Then he would have molded the clay tablet and slowly, but deliberately, carved his verse into it with a reed staff before the clay hardened. Finally, he would have dried the poem in the sun and waited another day for it to cool, when it could be delivered to his beloved by hand.

Feelings may not have a terminal velocity, but it should be said that certain expressions benefit from careful deliberation. Love is certainly one of them, but so is regret. So are longing, forgiveness, curiosity, and anger. Communication—the conveyance of meaning from one person to the next—depends on how we frame it. The second-most important question we must face, after choosing to communicate at all, becomes how to deliver what we want to say. Four thousand years after this poet bent over his writing desk, we have as many options as we have languages.

You can write your message in the sky, send it by singing telegram, speak into voice mail, shove it in the post, and hope for the best. You can write it in free verse, broadcast it to three hundred of your closest friends on Facebook, fire off an instant message, post it to your Twitter channel. If we think of modes of communication as a mirror spectrum of the human voice, we have as many registers as our mouths can make. The telex machine may have died, but most copy shops and offices still have fax machines. Phone booths still huddle, in various states of molestation, on many street corners. We can sign a message, pantomime it, text it, shoot a video message, record it as a song, upload a declaration of love onto YouTube, chalk it on pavement, scratch it on a tree trunk.

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that one of the most effective ways to send a message into the world is to wrap it in a form that only it can possess and give it away. Why buy a card when you can make one? Why sermonize when you can write a sonnet? But how many of us have the time for this—or the skill? All over the world we are working longer hours than ever, sleeping fewer winks, taking shorter vacations. In this environment, frazzled and fried, tied to a machine that gazes back at us more hours per day than even our spouses do, we do what makes the most sense: we send our messages the fastest way possible.

The Inbox of Kings
In June 2004, the Internet giant Google made an announcement that quietly marked the apotheosis of the e-mail age. Gmail, its Web-based mail program, would offer users unlimited storage. Imagine for a moment what this means. Thanks to a group of 450,000 machines scattered across the United States like underground missile bunkers, I could store more e-mails than there are blades of grass in Kansas. This is beyond unprecedented—it is superhuman. Is God’s inbox this big? Prior to the electronic age, dictators and kings did not enjoy such epistolary armories.

Still, their capacity is dwarfed by the Herculean arms of an everyday individual’s e-mail inbox today. What busy individual needs this industrial-strength capability for his correspondence tool? What buzzing, humming megalopolis tunes in to this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive? Is the human brain wired to receive this much stimuli? Can our eyes scan this many separate pieces of information? Is anyone listening? Who is it behind the screens, tapping the bellows and pumping the organ keys of this huge, throbbing machine at all hours of the night?

For the Love of e-mail
The answer, of course, is us. We love e-mail. In 2007, 35 trillion messages shot back and forth between the world’s 1 billion PCs; in the time it took you to read to this point, some 300 million e-mails were sent and received. They sluiced down corporate drainpipes, piled onto listservs, promising a return on investment in a small African country and providing jokes about pigs and news about your grandmother’s heart surgery. According to a Stanford University survey, 90 percent of all Internet users e-mail. In 2009, it has been estimated, the average corporate worker will spend more than 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 goes with us everywhere now. We check it on the subway, we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even in midconversation, blithely assuming that no one will notice. We check from our loved ones’ deathbeds. Even the most powerful people in the world do it. On most days during the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama’s BlackBerry “was fastened to his belt—to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign.” President George W. Bush, who received fifteen thousand e-mails a day at the White House, said that one thing he looked forward to after leaving office was e-mailing. There is even a service that allows you to send an e-mail after you’re dead. If there is an hour or a minute or a second to spare, e-mail is there. It is our electronic fidget.

It’s hard to blame us. Once broadband connection arrived, e-mail became the world’s most convenient communication tool. Not much more than a dozen years ago, most of us printed letters out, placed them in envelopes, and then walked or drove them to the post office, where we waited in line, wasting more time, so that the letter could arrive in maybe a week. The U.S. Postal Service estimated that, even if 99.8 percent of e-mails do not replace a letter, the sheer volume of e-mail means that more than 2 billion pieces of mail are diverted electronically each year. And that’s just personal correspondence. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of people who opted to pay their bills electronically rather than by mail diverted 3 billion pieces of mail. In the postal world, this replacement of tangible mail with electronic communication is called electronic erosion—and some of this is a good thing. Today we can type a note on our computer in New York and it will be received in New Zealand in nanoseconds. We use e-mail to send documents, music, wills, photographs, spreadsheets, and floor plans, communicate with our banks, send invitations. We no longer have to fill out those irritating forms to receive a return receipt by post, proof that our important letter arrived. The computer does it for us. We can even get a message the moment someone opens our e-mail. In just this one area, e-mail has given us back several days each year.

But it would appear that we are spending that surplus time e-mailing. The average office worker sends and receives two hundred e-mails a day—and that figure is rising. Forget about time spent stumbling absentmindedly around the Internet; this habit is destroying our ability to be productive. Information overload is a $650 billion drag on the U.S. economy every year. E-mail has made us a workforce of reactors, racing to keep up with a treadmill pace that is bound for burnout and breakdown and profound anger.

The form’s inherent blind spots always catch up with us. According to a survey in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we misunderstand the tone of e-mails 50 percent of the time—and for good reason: there is no face on the other end to stop us in midsentence, to indicate that what we are in the process of saying is rude, not comprehended, or cruel. We say what we want, like the CEO who recently belittled the effect of mortgage foreclosures, inadvertently sending the e-mail to someone who had just lost his home. The unlucky call this mistaken judgment. Psychologists call it disinhibition, and its pervasive effect—as can be witnessed every day in nasty comments appended to newspaper articles online, in the aggrieved tone and intent of some blog postings, in e-mail inboxes scorched by flame wars—has turned many parts of the Internet into a nasty place.

It’s tempting to simply argue that the Internet attracts aggressive people. But all of us, at some point or other, have behaved poorly over the Internet and via e-mail. There’s a reason for these communication hiccups and explosions. According to some neurologists, we learn to interact with the world by mirroring others; not only do we need to see people to understand them most effectively, but our mind learns how to move our limbs and make sense of the world by mirroring the actions of others. There are even neurons in our brain that fire only in response to mirroring the actions of others, and they are intimately connected with the parts of our brain that allow us to move and understand the world. The part of our brain that controls grasping motions shows heightened levels of neural activity when we see someone else pick up a glass of orange juice, as if we were doing it ourselves. According to Marco Iacoboni, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, this has bolstered the notion that “our mental processes are shaped by our bodies and by the types of perceptual and motor experiences that are the product of our movement through and interaction with the surrounding world.” Consider, then, the ramifications of an era of communication in which we are disembodied as never before. In our new context of e-mail overload, we are working in an environment in which there is nothing to mirror but our own words.

Beating Back the e-mail Tsunami
Who has time to think clearly when under assault by this tsunami of other people’s needs? That’s what it feels like when you turn on your computer first thing in the morning at the office and find fifty e-mails, the tide of your inbox always rising. One’s instinct is to beat it back because e-mail has reoriented time; communication that once took hours, days, minutes, now takes seconds, and the permitted reply time has shrunk as well. Let an e-mail linger for a day, and you risk a rift in a relationship. A 2006 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.

In the past, only a few professions—doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers—required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now almost all of us live this way. 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.

In the face of this ever-rising onslaught, there appear to be just two choices: keep up at all costs or put up a moat, declare oneself unreachable for the time being—and start all over again. E-mail bankruptcy is the communication subprime mortgage crisis of our era. Ironically, among the first to declare this were the Internet visionaries, such as Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, who believes that computer code will or can regulate our world as legal code has done in other realms of life. “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy,” he wrote in the summer of 2004. With one quick message, Lessig’s correspondents who were waiting for replies became his epistolary creditors, and he pleaded with them just as a bankrupt man does with his lenders. “That’s not a promise of a quick response,” he continued after five paragraphs. “But it is a promise that I will try.” Ironically, his plea for a reprieve generated a “torrent” of new e-mail.

In the beginning, this type of e-mailer—the tech-savvy fellow who sent and received a few hundred e-mails a day—was called a “power user,” who took technology and made the most of it. Now every white-collar employee is expected to be one. Not surprisingly, workshops and office coaches will tell you the problem isn’t the technology or even the work ethic—it’s ourselves. We have bad habits; we reply to all; we waste time treating e-mail as if it were an instant message tool, asking open-ended questions—“How are you doing?”—in the middle of the day. Get it together. You can keep up if you try. But is this really possible when most of us have a water cooler inside our computer surrounded by five thousand people, all talking at once?

In the Western and well-to-do parts of the world, in offices in Dubai and Duluth and Dunkirk, the world’s workers are typing themselves into a corner, ever farther out of touch with people beyond their sphere. Walk down a corridor in many companies, and it is eerily silent. You might think it was Christmas morning. In some places, all you hear is the ambient hum of the central air-conditioning unit, the creak of Aeron chairs, the cricketlike click of the mouse, and the faint clatter of keystrokes. But if you lean into cubicles or peer between doorways, you will see hunched, tense figures at their computers frantically trying to keep up with their inboxes. Interrupt them, and you will find their expressions glazed, their eyes dried out and weary. Their keyboard has become a messaging conveyor belt—and there is no break time.

This electronic conversational buzzing has become so loud, it’s easy to forget there are people who are not taking part in it. To e-mail one has to be literate, have access to a machine, and be connected. The world’s netizen population is approaching 2 billion, but this means only one-third of us are taking part in this enormously useful, endlessly irritating tool. Technology, so often assumed to be the cure for the world’s inequalities, has once again simply transplanted them into a new space where English has become the new superlanguage. Africa may be home to 14 percent of the world’s population, but it accounts for just 3 percent of the earth’s Internet users.

The Corliss steam machine
In 1900, Henry Adams, the grandson of a U.S. president and one of his age’s most observant historians, visited the Paris World’s Fair and had many of his suspicions of the future confirmed. Standing before a Corliss steam engine like the one pictured above, Adams witnessed the demolition of human narrative, of human scale. Powered by dynamos, huffing away without a single human hand touching its controls, the engine was an enormous testament to the will to power of technology. “Between the dynamo in the gallery of machines outside and the engine house outside,” Adams wrote in The Education of Henry Adams, “the break in continuity amounted to abysmal fracture.” In other words, in this one machine Adams saw how energy that originally would have come from human beings had been replaced by something insentient, a thing that would run itself with no input from human hands except in its creation.

In the twenty-first century, those of us who work in offices have crawled inside the dynamos, the machines driving the system; we’re keeping it spinning one electronic message at a time. This symbiotic embrace with the machine is something the early pioneers of the computing age hoped for. J. C. R. Licklidder, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the first director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, summed up these hopes in a prescient early paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis”: “The hope,” he wrote, “is that in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled . . . tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Fifty years on, that day seems to be here. To read an e-mail, you must be joined to an electronic machine. What does this machine want? Besides following our commands, it is a machine deeply, fundamentally connected to commerce. More often than anything else, it wants us to work. The new on-the-ball employee proves his worth by his speed of response—at work, at night, on the weekends, on vacations, the instant the announcement is made that it is now safe to use approved electronic devices on airplanes.

This ethic of being “always on” extends to the home, where it acquires a consumerist dimension. Web-based e-mail, which is used by more than 1 billion people worldwide, remains free because it allows host companies—such as Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft— to deliver advertising messages to people refreshing their inbox screen. Every time your screen reloads, a cluster of messages and graphics coalesces in the margins, blinking and beckoning. It frames what you are about to write or read. We are approaching a world in which every letter we write home, every love poem we read, every condolence note, political petition, and letter of apology we type is framed by a penumbra of automobile ads, perfume pitches, entreaties to enter online gambling emporiums.

Faster, Faster
Speed—the god of the twenty-first century—is not a neutral deity, as it turns out. The speed at which we communicate determines what we can do, what we can see, how we perceive, and whether we can adjust our own sense of reality to a larger, more complex frame of reference, one that encompasses the separate needs and points of view of others. Look out a window of a train traveling at full speed, and you will witness this phenomenon at work. The eye constantly darts to the horizon, only to be overwhelmed by a new horizon point, which comes racing forward, followed by another and another. The eye quickly becomes fatigued. The scenery is a blur.

Working at the speed of e-mail is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The e-mail inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest— there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels—via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, instant message—and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand e-mails still sitting in our inbox.

We’re not lazy; the computer is just far better than the human mind at batching and sorting. E-mail travels to and from computers circuitously, starting with our fingers, which type the characters. Our jokes and jabs are eventually translated into 0s and 1s, fired off through cable and phone lines, and reassembled upon the point of arrival, not unlike a car that has been shipped to the United States from Japan in pieces and assembled there once all the parts have arrived at the port and been sent by train to assembly plants, as one technology writer once put it. Computers and e-mail software are designed to know which parts of the chains belong to which; they can wait for a message to arrive fully before delivering it, and they can do so on a scale that is suprahuman. The computer is the ultimate multitasker—it doesn’t need to pause to write down reminders to itself on a yellow Post-it note. It doesn’t have emotional needs. It doesn’t have days when it is depressed. It needn’t touch a single thing to feel okay about doing its job.

Look into my eyes
Don’t try this argument out on an Internet visionary. The World Wide Web is often described as the biggest invention aiding human knowledge since the printing press. This may be overblown, since it is impossible to judge at this point—maybe nanotechnology will surpass it, or bioengineering, or battery technology? One thing, however, is clear: the Internet has effected one enormous change in our day-to-day life as it relates to reading, a change so large, but so all encompassing, that we don’t notice it—until we step outside.

Since the beginning of time, humans have read by reflected light. This gave reading a sacredness—light, after all, is the first thing God creates in the Bible. In the Koran, “God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.” Light is a fundamental feature of nearly all founding myths. In Greek mythology, Hyperion, the Titan god of light, is the son of Ourans (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). In “The Kingdom of the Dead,” the gloomiest chapter of Homer’s Odyssey, his hero washes ashore in a place so wretched that “the Eye of the Sun can never flash his rays through the dark and bring them light.” We read to come out of the darkness and into the light. Before electric light, reading meant sitting by a window or in a room open to sunbeams, or near a candle after dark. Read outside on a park bench in decent weather, and you will realize how natural this feels. The eye is designed for this kind of light, and our chemical response to it regulates our sleep and our moods, gives our days a natural rhythm. Electric light did not change this equation fundamentally. A bank employee might have to read ledgers under a harsher light, a reporter might sit and type a story before a single bulb, but the light they worked by was still reflected, the light glancing down onto the page and bouncing back up into their eyes, at which point the mind can begin to process what’s on the page.

The computer screen, however, is an entirely new reading experience. Rather than bouncing down off a surface, light is shot directly into our eyes. It is beamed right into our pupils, and our eyeballs get drier and drier as our blink rate decreases. In the days when computers were used for just word processing, this was not an overwhelming burden. Back then we still read the news and memos and mail in print, by reflected light. But once the Web became so immense it could house large, important sources of information—the home of newspapers, banks, and shopping malls—that were accessed daily, sometimes hourly, the equation changed. And with e-mail, which is checked minute to minute by a great many, that equation exploded. All day long, light is being beamed into our eyes.

Not surprisingly, this accelerating change in how we read has enormous physical and behavioral consequences. Eyesight has deteriorated with the ages, but it has taken a large leap back during the computer age due to the fact that people spend big chunks of their day focusing on a screen that is two feet in front of their faces. There are even nearsightedness epidemics among children. In Singapore, for instance, 80 percent of children are myopic, up from 25 percent just thirty years ago. Close study of books, but also computers and video games, is thought to be to blame.

Our eyes are tired, we get headaches, yet we cannot look away from the screen. E-mail is addictive, it has been shown, in the same way that slot machines are addictive. You press the send/receive button just as a gambler pulls down a slot machine lever, because you know that you will receive a reward (mail/a payout) some of the time. The best way to increase the chance of a reward is to press “Send” a lot. In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail thirty to forty times an hour.

What People are Saying About This

Geraldine Brooks
"A few decades ago, the ruler of Yemen ordered the northern gates of his city permanently barred, proclaiming, 'Nothing but evil comes through here.' After reading The Tyranny of E-mail, I'm feeling the same way about my laptop. Freeman's impeccably researched, eloquently argued book reveals the many ways this so-called boon to communication and productivity has become a distracting, privacy-sapping, alienating, addicting time-suck. He has convinced me that the new mantra for our times ought to be Tune out, Turn off, Unplug."--(Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize--winning author of March and People of the Book)
James Shapiro
"John Freeman brilliantly explores the paradox that increasingly defines our lives: the more we 'connect' through the Internet, the more disconnected we become. Closely argued and historically informed, The Tyranny of E-mail couldn't be more timely."--(James Shapiro, professor of English, Columbia University, author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare)
Jim Holt
"A mix of cool historical analysis and articulate outrage. Freeman doesn't just diagnose our creeping e-madness-he offers a cure that may prove liberating."--(Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes)

Meet the Author

JOHN FREEMAN is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award. He is the editor-in-chief of Granta and  lives in New York City.

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The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Send dramatically fewer e-mails and everything else will get better, says writer and editor John Freeman. Before explaining that promise, he offers a nostalgic look at the history of mail, starting with clay tablets. He covers the changes that each new burst of speed caused along the way. Then he describes the way that today's employees are ruining their attention spans, productivity, relationships and even their health with e-mail overload. In fact, he says, most office workers send or receive about 200 e-mails daily, absorbing 40% of their work time. Freeman's suggestion to slow down online communications will ring terror in many hearts. It will particularly strike you if you're reading with one eye on this text and one eye on your inbox. The message to step away from the computer is not new. But Freeman offers compelling, succinct information on why easing back from unrelenting e-mail is important and on how to break the constant e-mail cycle. getAbstract suggests his book to managers, in particular, but anyone who uses e-mail will find wisdom here. So read on (believe it or not, your e-mail will wait).
UncleDennis More than 1 year ago
I bought The Tyranny of E-mail for multiple reasons. First and foremost, because in my line of work (director of a student services department at a local college) email management is key to operating efficiently and effectively. Second, because of my overall interest in communications, I came upon John Freeman's book with the hope of finding a better way to manage my email life and provide guidance for my department employees. The Tyranny of E-mail provides a long, detailed account of how man has progressed in creating and delivering correspondence over the past 3000+ years, looking in-depth at how the modern day postal service evolved in Europe and across the globe. This well-researched first-half of the book helps lay a foundation for understanding how e-mail has improved the speed at which we communicate and also how it has expanded our reach. The second half of the book focuses in on how e-mail has impacted our ways of work and living, and in may cases how it has become a detriment to effective communication. Mr. Freeman does a good job of presenting evidence and explanations of how e-mail can cause additional stress, as the sender and receiver of e-mails may not be making the same assumptions regarding the correspondence (Am I expected to respond ASAP? Does ALL CAPS mean the person is mad at me? Must I be "CC'd" on everything? Would a phone call have been a better way to ask your questions?). Clicking "Send" is so easy, but we forget the ramifications of our actions. The Tyranny of E-mail should, at a minimum, make people stop and think about their personal e-mail practices and the effect they have on others- both in the work place and beyond. Other than a few non-essential political barbs thrown into the book, The Tyranny of E-mail is a great read. Mr. Freeman's thoughts on a Slow Communication Movement will make you really THINK about how, when, and why we communicate. And hopefully, make us smarter and more concerned (with others) when we do.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Booknut62 More than 1 year ago
Anyone who works in a job and has a email address that goes along with that job, certainly knows the frustrations described by John Freeman in this book. Overloaded inboxes, and the constant pressure to respond to emails are just a few of those frustrations. Freeman begins his examination of email by looking longingly back at the world of communication before email when communication involved writing out long and thoughtful letters, not quick, spur-of-the-moment responses. Freeman outlines effectively one of the biggest faults of all about email: it can be a very impersonal way to communicate with others. In the end, he argues, not for doing away with email, but for taking back your life from email, which can become a taskmaster, instead of making a job easier. He provides some specific strategies on how we can manage the email overload in our everyday lives, and be more productive, and perhaps more human in the process. This is quite a thoughtful read.