A Manifesto for Speed

8/28/09Follow @wroush

My favorite limerick of all time came printed on the bottom of a coffee cup:

All hail the goddess Caffeina!
She hangs out by the coffee machina.
We’re all on the run
But we get more work done
Since coffee came onto the scena!

Yes, this anonymous ditty breaks the rules of limericks, principally by mangling the meter and using made-up words like “machina” and “scena.” But it’s the sentiment that appeals to me. I do get more work done because of coffee. If the sprightly elixir was good for Voltaire, who is said to have consumed 50 cups a day, I figure it must be good for me.

I also get more work done because of e-mail. And because of the Web, and RSS feeds, and Google, and Twitter, and my iPhone and my MacBook and my Kindle—all of the tools, in short, that are melting our brains and impoverishing our communications, according to a circle of naysayers who have been very busy lately publishing books and articles with titles like Digital Barbarism and The Cult of the Amateur and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Technology criticism is an invaluable strain in our culture that stretches back to such brilliant writers as Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jane Jacobs. But to tell the truth, I don’t give much more credence to the recent anti-digital jeremiads than I do to the periodic warnings—always swiftly overturned by medical authorities—that caffeine is bad for your health.

The latest addition to the curmudgeon’s club is John Freeman, the acting editor of the UK-based literary quarterly Granta, who published a so-called “manifesto for slow communication” in the August 21 Wall Street Journal. The essay, which was adapted from Freeman’s forthcoming book The Tyrrany of E-Mail, argues that living in such close and constant proximity to our e-mail inboxes stresses us out, cuts us off from the physical world, and undermines our communication skills. Freeman thinks that spending all day writing and answering e-mail amounts to “simulated busyness” rather than genuine productivity. And he believes that the only way to restore sanity is to “step off this hurtling machine,” jabber less, and think more. “We need to learn to use [e-mail] far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives,” Freeman writes.

There are certainly days when I’d love to ignore my e-mail. Thursdays, for example, when I’m supposed to be writing this column. As Freeman rightly notes, “We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean,” and it would be wonderful, on those days, to have a few uninterrupted hours to take his advice. But I know that closing the e-mail tab in my browser would be as unwise as hitting the snooze button on my alarm clock. I’d just have to deal with the consequences later, in the form of a larger stack of urgent, unanswered messages. It’s true, as Stephen Covey observed, that what’s urgent is not always the same as what’s important—but some e-mails are both.

So I don’t think Freeman’s exhortation to use e-mail more sparingly is very practical. But I’m having trouble dismissing his essay from my mind. As far as I can figure out, it’s stuck there for three reasons.

1. Freeman’s critique of e-mail amounts to an attack on a whole way of life (mine—and probably yours).

I don’t merely depend on broadband, e-mail, content management systems, search engines, cell phones, and the like—I write about them. In fact, I believe they are emblematic of the exponential technological advances that are making knowledge more accessible, improving health, extending lifespans, and freeing more people than ever before from manual drudgery and allowing them to engage in creative work. This exponential change is where we got the “X” in Xconomy, and it is ultimately the main force that will lift us out of recession into yet another cycle of innovation and growth.

So when Freeman writes that “only two things grow indefinitely…cancer and the corporation,” I sputter with incredulity. It’s clear that industrial societies have hit on at least two other wonderful things that support indefinite growth, or have been for decades now: semiconductor technology, and even more important, a system of organizing people and capital around ideas and transforming them into products and services that the market wants—that is to say, industrial R&D and the venture-funded startup model. This system works as well as it does in part because digital communications have reduced the delays, frictions, and inefficiencies built into any cooperative endeavor. All I can say is that without e-mail, and lots of it, there’s no way that most Web companies—including Xconomy, with our small staff and three bureaus located thousands of miles apart—could operate.

2. Freeman throws the baby out with the bathwater.

“Efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships,” Freeman writes. Fair enough. But what if being more efficient about our unavoidable work tasks is the very thing that gives us time later to be mindful and to invest in real relationships? What I’m suggesting is that e-mail itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that most people are never taught how to handle it efficiently.

In his book Bit Literacy, which I cited back in February in a column on e-mail overload, user experience consultant Mark Hurst acknowledges that “Bits are heavy…[they] weigh people down, mentally and emotionally, with incessant calls for attention and engagement.” But unplugging from e-mail and making “Don’t send” your mantra, as Freeman advises, is an entirely unwarranted response to this problem. There’s no need to stop using e-mail, or even significantly ration its use, when there are relatively simple ways to manage your inbox so that you don’t feel like you’re constantly overwhelmed.

Hurst advocates a “zero-inbox” strategy: dealing with every e-mail in your inbox and emptying it out at least once a day. To briefly repeat Hurst’s method for doing this (the details are in the February column), he suggests responding first to e-mail from family and friends, then deleting all spam and “FYI” e-mails, then acting on every work-related e-mail request that can be dispatched in two minutes or less, and finally transferring all of the remaining requests onto a to-do list and addressing them later. While this may leave you with a swelling to-do list, it will at least give you the daily experience what I called “the bliss of an empty inbox.”

3. Slower isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, it’s just slower.

The society that abandons itself to e-mail and other forms of instant communication may indeed fetishize speed and falsely equate it with efficiency, as Freeman charges. But to my eyes, Freeman and other critics of modern Internet technologies romanticize slowness and falsely equate it with wisdom and fulfillment.

“The difference between typing an e-mail and writing a letter or memo out by hand is akin to walking on concrete versus strolling on grass,” Freeman soliloquizes. I would like to see him hand-write all of the notes I type to people every day while trying to keep my little part of Xconomy running. If he tried, I think he would conclude that the difference is more akin to getting a massage versus getting arthritis.

Novelist Mark Helprin starts out his recent non-fiction screed Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto with an entertaining little scenario contrasting the life of a fictional California software executive in 2028 with the life of a fictional English politician in 1908. The software executive is, of course, continuously immersed in a stream of digital data served up over the global network, even while he’s on vacation in the (by then tropical) Aleutians, while the politician, who’s on holiday at Lake Como, Italy, is completely out of touch with London, dependent on week-old newspapers and pen-and-ink letters carried by freighter. For the software executive, “The world flows at increasingly faster and faster speeds. You must match them…You love the pace, the giddy, continual acceleration. Though what is new might not be beautiful, it is marvelously compelling.” The politician, by contrast, makes do with his books, his memories, and his writing desk; he has “learned to enjoy the attribute of patience itself, for it slows time, embraces tranquility, and lets you savor a world in which you are clearly aware that your passage is but a brief candle.”

It’s obvious long before he acknowledges it that Helprin would rather be the politician than the software executive. To which I say: If Helprin has found a time machine that will take him back to 1908, he is welcome to go. I hope he’s had his shots. Personally, having tasted what it’s like to have instant access to nearly everyone I know and to nearly boundless stored knowledge, I could never choose a life of isolation. Nor do I think it would be a very good idea for politicians and businesspeople to return to an era in which progress was limited by the speed of steamships and locomotives.

It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be spelled out, but if we can communicate faster, we can also air questions, reach agreements, finish transactions, resolve disputes, and make plans faster. Think about it: who would you rather have in the White House during an economic or political crisis, a president with a Blackberry on his belt or one with a telegraph operator in the basement?

Freeman and Helprin can stroll on their grass by the lake and use all the postage stamps they want. Just give me my coffee, my computer, and my cable Internet service.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • Bill Ghormley

    Right on, Wade.
    Caffeine + Cable + Communication at light speed = Exponential Connection to a Compelling Cosmos (more poetry, too)
    I learned the “bliss of the empty in box” from Bruce Bullen, now acting CEO at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
    Bruce actually takes it a step further — he never leaves for home until his ENTIRE inbox is less than one screen in length, which means he opens and processes all but a dozen holdover emails daily. Noting Bruce’s effectiveness when working with him, I try to get to a zero inbox at least 2-3 times a week. (;-> Wag

  • http://www.flxpt.com Chris Noble

    We’re all different aren’t we? For me, 5 days in a row of constant interruptions & information, followed by 2 days of being unplugged, works well. Freemen seems to need a different environment. The key is figuring out what environment works for you and how to find it.

  • http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com Craig Roth

    I’m happy to see voices of reason popping up here and there among the din of “information overload is destroying your brain” messages. I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here that needs to be managed and that many people don’t have dysfunctional message processes. I use reason to mean applying skepticism and objectivity (as Chris does above pointing out each person has a different environment). Information overload comes across too often with evangelical zeal. That’s why I recommend avoiding the “information overload” term and its negative associtations entirely and describe it in terms of a management issue (enterprise attention management).

    More on the “attention management” tag of my blog:
    http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/category/attention-management/

  • Pingback: Saying Farewell to World Wide Wade | Xconomy