Thursday, March 26, 2015

Email isn't the problem

I resisted reading this piece in Slate for a long time. It purported to be a rant about email, and having worked in tech I find the average end user's complaint about computer software to be ill-informed at best.

However, Chris Kirk's piece turned out to be a tale of how he was driven to create his own email client. That is a feat I can respect. I wouldn't have the guts to start a project like that. (I've read the tiniest part of the specifications documents for email and the complexity of this seemingly boring utility is awe-inspiring.)

The takeaway from Kirk's piece, though, isn't the software, which he readily admits is far from a finished product and probably doesn't suit anyone but him. No, the takeaway is a perspective on how email should fit into our lives.

Email isn't a dragon to be slain. It's an old beast of burden, and we've abused it by throwing the whole spectrum of human communication on its tired back. What if saving this loyal creature doesn't mean radically transforming it but merely easing its load? Maybe the dream of an email-free future isn't dead; maybe it just means a future in which email is merely a sliver of our communication rather than the whole pie.
He points to Slate's in-house use of a collaboration tool for instant messaging. Though Kirk has no hard numbers, his perception is that it has reduced email by a lot.

I'm not fond of the idea of having to monitor multiple communications channels. On the other hand, Kirk is eminently correct that email's original purpose is at odds with how and why we communicate with each other a lot of the time. Much communication is ephemeral, disposable. There's no reason the mail from my coworker two doors down suggesting it's time for lunch should linger in my in-box, but I'm conditioned not to dispose of email. By comparison, I have no such concerns about, say, SMSes. I and people like me need to get over our calcified habits and embrace more effective ways to communicate.

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