Inside the Inbox

The Tyranny of E-mail, By John Freeman, Scribner (October 2009)

There seems to be a common, if unexamined, perception among Internet users that their virtual activity can be divided into two camps. In the first resides e-mail and other types of electronic correspondence—legitimate forms of communication all and enablers of human productivity, progress, and sociability. The second, meanwhile, is the province of YouTube and Huffington Post, viral videos, and pornography—a veritable hornet’s nest of self-indulgence.

Not so, says Granta editor John Freeman in a new book, The Tyranny of E-mail. Equal parts epistemological history, communications manifesto, and self-help guide, Freeman lays out his argument in a tone of breathless urgency, as if, having snared your attention away from the screens for a little while, he’s determined to fill your head with as many ideas, theories, and bits of information as he possibly can.

Freeman’s thesis is straightforward: our reliance on e-mail is rapidly eroding a number of things which are vital to the perpetuation of ourselves and our society. E-mail induces anxiety, shatters our attention spans, and hurts our eyes; it diminishes our ability to think in complex and creative ways, promoting instead the accomplishment of rote tasks; and it undermines valuable community institutions such as the post office, cafe, and newspaper.

For those who are deeply addicted—half of all New Yorkers, according to Freeman—their constant virtual habitation blurs some important boundaries, as well, including those between their work and homes—BlackBerries, anyone?—between their private and public lives, and even between the self and others. (Freeman quotes professor of psychology, John Shuler: “[Cyberspace] may be experienced as an intermediate zone between self and the other that is both self and the other.”)

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, our dependence on e-mail is alienating us from our bodies—literally stealing us away from the physical world. “[O]ur body,” Freeman writes, “is the best, most sophisticated interface for appropriate communication. It has multiple valences; it has smell, touch, taste, and light. It allows us to keep ourselves in check by providing real-time continuous feedback from another person: facial expressions, the slightest twitch of an eyebrow, gestures, eye contact, the squeeze of an arm.”

It doesn’t help that e-mail is thought to induce addiction in much the same way that slot machines do. Both activities operate on a principle known as “variable internal reinforcement,” meaning that the more often one jerks the lever or sends a message, the more often they receive a reward—in the form of jackpot or e-mail. This reward, in turn, produces dopamine in the brain, a neural sensation not unlike biting into a juicy hamburger or convincing the object of your desire to frolic with you between the sheets.

And because e-mail is an asynchronous technology, requiring only one participant at a time, it tends to produce disinhibition—defined by psychologists as “impulse unleashed”—at the expense of empathy. So people virtually harass others they don’t know personally; they forward videos to friends showing other people hurting themselves; they post naked photographs of their ex-girlfriends on social networking sites for the world to see.

Of course, this virtual behavior often has real world consequences. In one horrific example from 2006, a 13-year-old girl in Missouri committed suicide after she was repeatedly harassed by a friend’s mother. The woman had been posing as a male peer.

But there’s another side to this coin. E-mail allows people to connect with others like never before—a fact aptly illustrated in the comprehensive, if sometimes tedious, history of Western epistemology that constitutes the first few sections of Tyranny. E-mail also enables social mobility to a degree that is unprecedented, and engenders economic development and expansion.

Yet it is on this latter point that one wishes that Freeman, having departed the relatively secure worlds of history and psychology, would approach something resembling a coherent political philosophy. As he acknowledges in his introduction, e-mail is “deeply, fundamentally tied to commerce. More often than anything else, it wants us to work.”

He means this as criticism, and yet almost in the same breath he pleads with us to slow down, to send and check less—in part so that we can get more done. Excessive e-mailing, Freeman tells us, costs the United States about $600 billion a year. If only we e-mailed less, we could produce more. But he never tells us what the implications for recovering this lost revenue would have for the average American citizen.

In fact, it never seems to occur to him that the impulses impelling us into our screens—to spray the world with wads of e-mail in the hopes that someone, anyone, will write us back—is both an extension of and a response to the ever burgeoning expectations of a money-driven society. And that this is nothing new.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, looking out at the farming community of Concord, Massachusetts, wrote, “the laboring man…has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?”

Placed in this context, the computer and e-mail don’t seem so different from the pickaxe or shovel so long as they are being used in the service of a capitalist economy. And by besieging us with information—pages of data, theories, and anecdotes—Freeman undermines aspects of his own argument. Surely we should e-mail less; this is almost not a question. But Freeman forgets that the best service he could provide would be to help us, as Thoreau did, to remember our own ignorance—not only to e-mail less, but to do less, to make less, to want less—so that we might ultimately grow.


Alex Gallo-Brown

Alex Gallo-Brown is a Seattleite living in Brooklyn.