John Freeman, a longtime book critic who recently became the editor of the literary magazine Granta, has written a new book called “The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox” (Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $25).
He’s conceived of the subject in the broadest possible terms: He begins with an ancient Sumerian love poem, tracks the history of communication from the Persian Empire in the 6th century, the Arabian use of pigeons, the growth of literacy, the golden age of letter-writing in 19th century Europe, up to the telegraph, ZIP Codes and development of computers. Author Jim Holt has called the book a “mix of cool historical analysis and articulate outrage.”
Some of Freeman’s observations are familiar (that the Internet has isolated us from each other) and others are fresher, as when he likens President Obama, besieged by his BlackBerry, to President Lincoln overwhelmed by telegrams, or when he calls for a new style of communication based on the Slow Food movement. We spoke with Freeman, 34, from Granta’s New York office.
What made you want to write about e-mail?
I was getting quite a bit of it. I was working [as president] for the National Book Critics Circle, getting 200 or 300 messages a day, and I thought, “This is insane.” At first I thought it was just me, because I was the head of an organization with a lot of members. But I saw a note online about the fact that the average office worker would send and receive 200 messages a day, in 2009, and I thought, all right, something’s happening here. I just thought it was time to take a step back.
When did you realize it was more than just an annoyance, but something with a history and context?
Part of it was my own experience, my sense that it was becoming harder and harder to read. Even after I shut the computer down, at the end of the day. I just felt like, this is conditioning our intellectual capacity. And there’s the emotional aspect of it -- the blowups you have over e-mail.
When I started to research, I read a book on the first information overload era, during the telegraph, and I realized there’s a context to this. Many of the same conversations we’re having now we were having then.
So what is e-mail doing to us, as individuals and as a culture?
Everybody’s experienced the massive dis-inhibition effect of computer-mediated communication: You’ll say things, and do things, over the Internet that you would not do in person or in a letter. You don’t have any of the usual visual cues from face-to-face communication or in a conversation over the phone. There are no pauses, no pregnant silences -- you can’t see someone wince when you say something rude. Or they might see you going in a direction and start to show visible anxiety. Writing over e-mail, you have none of that. And your natural response to it is to beat it back, to respond as quickly as possible. You’re doing it on a self-imposed, machine-imposed deadline.
Psychologically, there’s something that happens when you spend more time with a computer than you do with your spouse. Staring at it all day. It becomes a kind of extension of your mind.
A lot of things we used to do in person we do alone and in isolation now. There’s a convenience factor, but also an alienation, as a result. The more we withdraw from the real world, the less we’re invested in it.
Your book traces the incredible labor people used to have to go through to send a message, especially internationally. E-mail is vastly more convenient. We got here by choice, didn’t we?
We did. The downside is that when we were writing letters to one another, they traveled at such a lower rate of speed that our responses could be considered.
We have gotten there by choice, but now that e-mail is an integral part of working in an office, there’s a lot of pressure to stay on it. You check it at night, in the middle of the night. I don’t think we have a framework for how to operate in this context. It’s an entirely new situation, so I saw this book as a chance to pause, look at the context we’re building, and ask if it’s working.
We can only guess, and rely on what we think of common sense, to decide what’s appropriate?
It drives a wedge between ourselves and the people we love. I found a study done by Stanford University about Internet use -- it said that people’s use of the Internet, which was primarily e-mail, was not coming out of their time with television and other media, it was on top of it. So this wonderful technology, which has so many conveniences, was actually heightening this isolation that we feel, and driving us away from people right in front of us. And you can create an unhappy situation from responding to a rhythm of work that never stops.
With all of these effects in mind, how do we take back our lives from the machine?
The first thing I feel like saying is: Just don’t send a message. So much of what we send we could first stop and think, “Do I really need to send this? Do I really need to be logged on right now? Is there an urgent situation that means that I should check my mail?”
And the more that people do that, the more it will have a cumulative effect. Because every e-mail you don’t send means there’s a message someone else doesn’t have to send, acknowledging your message. And I think if people can do this simultaneously, there will be a huge drop-off. Simply acknowledging that there’s a problem and shutting off.
It’s like any kind of drug -- there are chemical effects to e-mail. It’s difficult at first, but whenever I go on vacation I completely shut off. It’s a little antsy for half a day, and then I remember what it’s like to be in a moment. I think that’s necessary to have a meaningful life, or a meaningful relationship.
You are the New York-based editor of an English literary magazine, which, you have argued, must become even more cosmopolitan. Are you able to dial back your e-mail correspondence?
Yeah, I am. It’s hard: I know writers, when they write something, want feedback, and they want acknowledgment that something has been received. It would be very easy for me to be constantly online, constantly connected. I feel like as a correspondent, just as friends do in real life, people have rhythms. You can condition people: Once you set a boundary and a rhythm, people almost always respond to it.
Can you give us a sense of where Granta is going?
It’s interesting in the context of this conversation. The more that people read and experience life in general in chopped-up bits, the greater will become their demand for deep connection. The thing about Granta is we come out four times a year, we don’t have word count limits -- the things we can publish are much different than in most magazines. My goal is to take advantage of that, to encourage deep reading experiences, and to show that you can come at big themes from a refracted angle.
Timberg blogs at scott-timberg.blogspot.com/