“What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.” – Havelock Ellis
H.L. Mencken used that quote in 1931, writing about the irritating aspects of modern technology. Mencken was grousing specifically about his home telephone, which he found indispensable but annoying and distracting. Today he’d be talking about e-mail.
According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, e-mail addiction is an epidemic, wasting much of the day for our nation’s knowledge workers. I’m not exactly sure what a knowledge worker is, but apparently we have 56 million of them, and their productivity is being seriously curtailed because of e-mail.
A representative of Basex, a research firm consulted by the Times, says that e-mail has become so plentiful and insistent that it takes up 28% of the knowledge worker’s day, or 2.1 hours per worker per day, costing around $650 billion per year.
Hard to believe it takes so long to wade through each day’s forwarded jokes and Viagra offers, but it is true that e-mail, like almost every innovation, comes with a downside attached.
E-mail makes it easier to communicate. It makes us feel important, snappy and up-to-the-minute.
It also sidetracks us, and takes up time that would be better spent actually working on something. It often demands a response and stresses us out. And it encourages us to use language we wouldn’t dare use on the phone or face-to-face, with the result that working relationships can be destroyed in the time it takes to press “Send Now.”
In his essay 77 years ago, Mencken claimed that only one recent technological innovation had been entirely positive — the thermostat. My pick, for my era, would be the microwave oven. The others all seem to introduce unforeseen annoyances.
I will say I like e-mail so far. It hasn’t overwhelmed me. Of course, I don’t get 300 e-mails a day, or even 30.
Also, I don’t spoil my correspondents by responding too soon. You should never give e-quaintances reason to think you’re going to answer within 24 hours. I try to answer within a few days, but if I don’t...well, a lot of those questions tend to answer themselves.
The e-mail pressure on me would no doubt be greater if I were a knowledge worker, but that’s something else my e-quaintances have learned not to worry about. They know better than to expect any knowledge from me.
SHERWOOD KIRALY is a Laguna Beach resident. He has written four novels, three of which were critically acclaimed.