Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Reading Email (Once a Week)


I remember it very well. One day in the early 1990s I was reading the weekly journal of the University of Utrecht, where I was a student, and came across a small column that announced the invention and introduction of a brand-new way of communication. It was called “e-mail” (that stands for “electronic mail”, the note explained), and was extremely cheap because it used the telephone line to transmit entire text messages in just a fraction of a second. I was impressed. Could it really be true that instead of incurring expensive telephone bills for calling my friends at the other side of the Atlantic or of Europe, I could tell them everything I had to tell them for almost nothing? It seemed too good to be true. Surely there was a catch, and the telephone companies would find some other way to make us pay.
That is now more than twenty years ago, and I have forgotten what those early emails even looked like. Email has become so normal and omnipresent that we find it hard to imagine how people got anything done before the nineties. What did you do if you were organizing an international conference, for instance, and needed to communicate with your colleagues about all kinds of tiny details, correct misunderstandings, create
consensus, and so on? Well, there is an answer. We sat down to write letters. And having finished them, we had to go out and put them in a physical mailbox, or find a fax machine somewhere, in cases of great hurry. Or we made a phone call, in spite of the costs, and it all took a lot of time. Didn’t we have anything else to do than wasting hours and hours on such laborious and time-consuming procedures? Well, there’s an answer to that too. We could find the time, for a very simple reason. We did not need to spend hours every day reading email and responding to it.

When email was first introduced, its benefits seemed a bit similar to those of voicemail. Instead of having to deal with phonecall interruptions all the time, you could quietly read your messages at a moment of your own convenience. If people wanted to speak with you right away, well, bad luck for them, they just had to wait. But as email took over as the dominant means of communication, along with the introduction of visual and auditory cues ("you got mail!" - nowadays abbreviated as "bleep" or "boink" or just a number, for of course you got mail!) this quickly proved to be an illusion. Nowadays, email looks more like a wide open door that gives direct access to your home, with a large invitation over it: 

WELCOME! Everybody, known or unknown, may enter here at any moment, day or night, twenty-four hours a day. Feel free to walk straight into my study whenever you feel like it, and start talking to me about anything that’s on your mind, important or unimportant. I might be busy trying to concentrate on something when you enter, but no need to worry about that. Just start talking anyway. I’ll do my best to interrupt everything I’m doing right away, I'll listen to whatever you have to say, and will do what I can to answer immediately.

How normal is it, really, that we now find this normal? Should we even be surprised when scientists find that email increases mental stress and decreases our ability to concentrate? Or that our continuous exposure to internet, twitter, or texting cues causes our brain to get addicted to them, for straightforward chemical reasons based upon dopamine? As a result of that mechanism, known as a dopamine loop, the stream of interruptions gets even bigger: for if we are left in peace for a little while, this very fact makes us so nervous that we start interrupting ourselves.  
In his important and predictably controversial book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr begins with an observation that I trust will sound familiar to many of us:

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in
the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...]
I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. [...] The boons are real. But they come at a price. [...] [W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it [...].

Carr provides hard neurological evidence. Our brain is very flexible: it quickly learns in response to whatever we ask it to do – and unlearns what we neglect to ask it. At present, we continuously train ourselves to get better and better at those skills that allow us to use the Internet quickly and effectively. And boy do we get good at it! But it goes at the expense of other skills that the Internet just doesn’t require, or even discourages. Notably those skills of deep and prolonged concentration on one single piece of text – without continuous hyperlinks that move us instantaneously to another text, full of other hyperlinks that again move us elsewhere, and so on. The fact is that we are systematically training our brain not to concentrate on a line of thought, an argument, a narrative. We are training it in the art of breaking our concentration.

Reading Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (yes, that's a hyperlink! Please stay with me anyway) made me aware of another dimension of email: that of guilt and social pressure. It is already bad enough that my concentration gets shattered whenever a new visitor walks into my study and issues a beep to interrupt what I’m doing. And it is even worse that when nobody walks in for five minutes, my dopamine compels me to get up and walk to my door to check whether anyone is coming yet, and that when I’m back at my desk, I am distracted because my brain keeps wondering why nobody is there to disturb me. 
- When will the next beep come? 
- Have they forgotten me? 
But the process does not stop there. When new visitors come in, as they invariably do, they expect me to answer quasi-immediately and are likely to take offense if I don’t. 
- I have received the email, haven’t I? 
- I have the technical means to respond, don’t I? 
- So then why the f@#$%^&! do I not respond? What is it that’s keeping me? 
And even this can get worse. Similar to what happens in the dopamine loop (first you get interrupted by others, but eventually you don’t need them anymore: you’ve started doing it all by yourself), even if nobody is blaming me for being slow with my answers, I end up feeling guilty all by myself. I don't want them to think I’m impolite and egoistic. They might think I’m some arrogant ass (those professors, you know...) who finds his own stuff so important that he just can't be bothered to take an interest in others and respond to their needs. 
Too busy? What nonsense! They get as many emails as I do. No cause for me to complain, as if I’m in some special category. If they can answer their emails, so can I. 

I have been thinking about these problems for a long time and have come to a clear decision. I refuse to be manipulated and disciplined into conformity with the logic of The Circle, and most importantly: I reserve the right to protect my own brain. I don't want to expose it systematically to conditions that limit my ability to do what I do best: concentrate. From now on (July 2014) I will therefore be reading my email once a week, and will disable it entirely during the rest of the week. I know that many people will find this incredibly radical, or preposterous, and some will get angry with me - so let me explain. It is really very simple. My core business as a scholar in the Humanities requires the ability of deep “concentration and contemplation” (as formulated by Carr). That is what I need most when I'm studying books, articles, or primary sources. I have a responsibility, to myself and to society, to protect and cultivate those skills, for if they wither and decline then the quality of my work will suffer. I know very well that even this brief explanation sounds like a justification or even an excuse. Perhaps it is. But if so, it nicely illustrates the very point I've just been making: like everyone else, I'm by no means immune to the guilt-inducing magic of The Circle.
Now I’m well aware that, even though these general problems of concentration/interruption, dopamine loops, or social pressure by the internalization of guilt are real and universal, something that doesn’t work for me might work better for others. Different people have different mental constitutions, not everybody responds in the same way to stress, and quite some friends and colleagues do not experience email as a problem the way I do. Some people are able to switch quickly from one task to another, and that's great for them, but I have never had that ability: I just happen to be a deep concentrator with a long and slow curve. Some people enjoy digital socializing, and that's great for them too, but I don’t: I find it empty and superficial and prefer meeting people face to face. Some people like to focus on information, and that's fine too, but my interest is in knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Am I too naive or optimistic in thinking that this could actually work? I’ll have to see how it works out in practice, especially as the new academic year begins. But one thing is clear: reading email once a week means that once I sit down to do it, I will be concentrating on it. 100%.