Words, words, words. Cleaning out old files yesterday I tossed a lot of paper and kept drafts of stories and scripts, birthday cards from my wife and kids, and intriguing letters including one from an inmate who enjoyed one of my books. The sense of nostalgia was reinforced the next morning as I listened to an NPR radio show about an auction for a collection of letters from the 19th century romantic poet, Lord Byron.
Then I heard about John Freeman’s new book, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox. We applaud Freeman for his eloquent and well-researched tome on one of the greatest drains to our productivity and soul — the cluttered e-mail inbox. Freeman advocates many of the same techniques we believe in: Send fewer, shorter e-mails, check infrequently, and don’t be in a rush to reply. His book and Lord Byron’s letters has put me in a reflective mood, a large part of what we lose in e-mail.
E-mails lack context and form. You send a serious note and get what we call in our book: The Non-response — either no-reply or a meaningless “got it” or “thanks” or “that’s great.” Even between colleagues, friends, or partners misunderstandings are the rule. I think a lot of this fractured quality has to do with place and time. One person may be reading an e-mail while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, and another while sitting down sipping coffee. One might be composing a thoughtful note at the office, another dashing one off on their iPhone before jumping on the red-eye to New York.
Freeman’s book is a valuable step toward sanity, one that may give a lot of companies pause about their investment in e-mail. What’s interesting is that Freeman advocates our Soloist mantra, putting your work and individualism first. That ends up putting the company first, but it takes courage to break from routines.
But I wonder about the deeper question: How do we find a way out of this mess?
Yes, we all need to send fewer e-mails, but what will be next? How do we crack through all the electronic babble and find a way to send a thoughtful note to a coworker or associate that isn’t viewed as more digital trash to be quickly shoved off our plate?
Here’s my simple request: Will some genius please reinvent the personal note for the digital age? Find a brilliant way to mark or dignify a message so it isn’t viewed as one more jumble of bits and bytes cluttering our day?
That’s a question I hope the smart minds at Apple, IBM or Google are being given ample freedom and time to solve. You know who I mean? Those special men and women who don’t have to answer a lot of damn e-mails.
— Jonathan Littman