In one sense, this is an issue of hierarchy. For those at the top of the tree – bosses, successful freelancers, divisional managers – asserting control over their own lives and times is possible if they put their minds to it.
For those clambering up lower branches, however, the luxury of control is harder to come by. Not replying to emails from your superiors while at home or on vacation isn’t really an option; nor is refusing to copy others into exchanges you haven’t initiated, or setting up meetings instead. Tech gurus may talk of “unplugging” and restoring work-life balances – but most ordinary aspirants simply have to get on with living within whatever system surrounds them.
This, I think, is what email wants most people to feel: powerless. It wants this because, in the end, it’s not so much a physical technology as a set of assumptions and laws encoded within the tools we use every day. Until the laws themselves change, all the good intentions in the world count for very little. And laws don’t tend to change until enough actual lawmakers take an interest.
Towards the end of his book, Kevin Kelly asks a second question about technology: “how can technology make a person better?” Only, he answers, “in this way: by providing each person with chances.”
So far as email is concerned, it’s an ugly irony of contemporary connectivity that many of the chances it provides are not for creation or self-betterment, but for the perpetuation of a system where, if an idea or a task isn’t represented in your inbox, it might as well not exist.
The irony is especially bitter because electronic mail remains a fantastic tool for something precious: for free, seamless, thoughtful written communication between both friends and strangers, open to all, and near-unlimited in its scope.
Perhaps the most important question of all, then, is this: what is email best for? The answer, I’d suggest, is anything that a self-contained written account can effectively convey without begging too many questions – and that doesn’t actually need answering until tomorrow.
We’ll never escape all of technology’s worse wants. But if enough bosses, gurus and digital law-makers can manage to think outside the inbox, we can at least hope to contend with lesser evils.