Feb 282008

Lately, much has been written about the “dilemma” of too much e-mail. See Zeldes et al., or Krill for instance) Some write on this from the perspective of firms. They suggest that “knowledge workers” are spending too much time on e-mail, time when they could be being “productive.” The writers claim that we must deal with the “problem” of “information overload” or “infomania” as if this were something new, and as if there were a possible global “solution” to this “problem.”

I suppose the authors of these arguments would add instant and text messaging, messages over social networks such as Facebook or in Second Life, various forms of teleconferencing, and so on. I’ll just call all this e-mail for short. Also, I’m not concerned with spam here, but with e-mail that somehow seems worthwhile to the recipients. This supposed e-mail problem cannot be looked at in the ahistorical way the writers suppose, but must be seen in the context of changing economic systems. It is that context I will focus on here.

The “Prudent King” Beats Us to It
Information overload as a phenomenon is of course nothing new; the term was in use long before e-mails were ubiquitous, starting easily 30 years ago. Well over 500 years ago, although no one had heard of the term “information overload,” King Philip II of Spain along with many of his aides, were inundated with handwritten reports, requests, queries, etc. They kept this “prudent king” busy from morning to night for over 40 years. King Philip thus mostly held together a huge empire, but what made him the ruler was precisely that numerous people sought attention from him and in so doing, necessarily gave him attention in return.

Today, one of the main reasons people read their e-mail is undoubtedly because it gives them the sense of being at the center of attention — in effect the centers of of their own little personal empires. After all, each e-mail received demonstrates that someone thinks they are important enough to try to get their attention, at least apparently by paying them attention in return. E-mail appears to be addressed personally to the recipient, and often is. The very fact you have received it means someone seems to have been thinking of you. If you fail to respond, you run the risk of falling off the radar. If you make it impossible for anyone to send you e-mail, you lose a sense of your own importance in the outer world.

A Fan’s Notes

Or think of e-mail as like “fan mail.” A star can measure her worth by the amount of this she gets. She may choose to reply formulaically, but if she can stand the effort of replying —at least minimally — in person, she is likely to tighten her connection with fans. In terms of e-mails, each person becomes a minor “star,” who who would suffer a small defeat were she to disappoint one of her fans. Equally bad is to disappoint part of her apparent audience collectively, say the members of some formal or informal listserv [by an informal listeserv, I just mean a group of people who are cc’d together quite often by any one of them] or a social networks such as a grouping within Facebook. To ignore what such groups send out or never to take active part in their interchanges risks losing one’s role as a focus in that community.

This talk of stars and fans might hints that something new is happening. What? One major difference between King Philip’s day and now is simply technological. In the sixteenth century, sending messages over many miles was an arduous process from beginning to end — arduous in the hand writing, sealing, finding a messenger to to take it in general the direction of the king, and then often waiting many months for the message to reach the King’s palace, where it might languish for more months before being answered.

Technology has certainly advanced since then, and even since the more widespread notice of information overload thirty odd years ago. Before personal computers were widespread, sending a written or typed message was much more complex than e-mail is, and often required some sort of use of a stenographer, secretary, personal assistant or typing pool to be at all efficient. This meant that relatively few were in the position of originating letters. With e-mail has come a great democratization, but that just means far more e-mails can be sent and therefore received.

When you receive an e-mail, furthermore, it is extremely easy to open. Neither you nor anyone else has to pick up, sort, and distribute the mail. No one has to open each envelope individually or unfold and mark the letter within as received. It arrives with an automatic date and time stamp. All this encourages the flow of ever more e-mail.

Beyond the Obvious

However, change at a deeper level is also taking place. The number of people who now work or spend time in settings where they easily can send and receive e-mails has grown fantastically. Compared to King Philip’s era or even to thirty years ago, a far higher percentage of the world’s people do not have to engage in actual physical labor, such as farming (or tending flocks) rowing the galleys, carrying things and people on their own shoulders or backs or in their saddle bags, making things, being part of armies, etc.

Philip II ruled early in the development of market-based industrialization. Today industrialization is fading out in terms of the hold it has over people’s actual lives and focus. In the twenty-first century a whole new kind of economy — the Attention System (or the Attention Economy as I define it, not as in Davenport and Beck or others who think it only deals with advertising or simply the paying but not the desire for or receiving of attention) — has now come to the fore. An increasingly large — even if not formally or consciously recognized — preoccupation is the securing, individually, of the scarce attention of the rest of the world — or whatever part of this attention one can snag.

The aim in this new economy is not to be productive from the viewpoint of the firm in which one formally happens to work, which is tied to the old economy. Regardless of where one works, what is of increasing importance is the attention one receives, wherever it comes from, via networking of whatever sort. Companies can only hold themselves together if their leaders (formal or informal) can genuinely hold a great deal of the attention of both their wider audiences and of their own workers. But they cannot hope to succeed in this just by shutting off outside connections, especially today, for with the wide variety of means to to stay connected to whomever one wants — Blackberries, iPhones, browser connected e-mails (Yahoo! or Google, for instance) and the many social networks — even an employee locked into a company has plenty of ways of reaching and being reached by those outside it.

Worth Stressing?
This does not mean that the new economy is somehow stress free or devoid of competition. Quite the contrary, in fact. The total attention the world can offer is limited; thus the competition for it keeps getting hotter, once it becomes seen as desirable in any form. E-mail’s ease means that is going to continue to be relied on, and by more and more senders, many of whom will continue to seek to make their messages as irresistible as possible. The senders do want attention after all.

By age three or four, most children have learned to modulate their efforts to get attention depending on their own sense of urgency and the circumstances. One learns, for instance, not to scream at full volume at all times. Adults dealing with e-mail have mostly developed a keen if not always conscious sense of how to get attention for themselves, through their ideas, jokes passed along, pointers to others deserving of attention etc. They and their recipients will continue to refine these abilities, some with greater success than others. That is about the best we can hope for.

Each person must develop her individual ways of dealing with the overload and handling the stress. Whoever is less easily stressed or finds inner resources that allow better coping will likely do best. The limitations of e-mail mean that cultivating real relationships in person will continue to be highly necessary for some time, and finding the right individual balance among the complex of relationships, real and virtual, will be essential.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

But no general contrivance to reduce e-mails (always excepting true spam) can work, whether for a firm, some other kind of association, or for the world at large. Any such attempt ignores the very value of e-mail receiving as well as sending for the individual. It ignores the rise of the Attention System (Attention Economy). Whatever contrivance is tried will surely lead to work-arounds, usually rendering the contrivance null and void in short order. If work-arounds are impossible, loyalty to whatever entity has adopted the contrivance will plummet, so its adoption will prove counterproductive. (I would guess most smart leaders intuitively grasp this anyway, so they are unlikely to adopt such contrivances in the first place. )

A Burden We’d Better Bear
Information overload really means not enough attention to satisfy everyone’s desire for it. This can only end if almost everyone agrees not to compete for attention — or if the entire technosphere breaks down in some general calamity. A peace treaty of the first sort seems far, far away. Let’s hope we escape a calamity as well. If so, then information overload or infomania will be with us for a long, long time.

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