John Freeman, 34, is the American editor of the eminent British literary magazine Granta, a job he took on in May after 10 years as a book critic, regularly writing for 200 English-language publications around the world, including Canada (which he calls “the only matriarchal literary society”). In other words: a literati’s literati. Yet his own first book is not a novel, but The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox (Simon and Schuster), an impressive piece of literary nonfiction that blends history, sober judgment and controlled rage. Freeman spoke with Brian Bethune about what e-mail is doing to our work productivity, spare time, attention spans, eyesight, brain function and relationships:
Q: The e-mail stats are truly mind-boggling: 650 million messages every 10 minutes, 37 trillion a year in total, and each one of us office drudges getting 200 or more a day. It’s endless.
A: It’s out of control. I was getting two or three hundred a day in my job as president of the National Book Critics Circle. I thought this is just me because I’m in touch with a thousand book critics, but when I saw that figure I thought this isn’t just my problem. And if everyone has this problem it’s going to make us all incredibly tetchy and angry and more prone to talk rather than listen.
Q: And to misunderstand each other?
A: Yeah. That’s the big problem.
Q: One of your key points is we’re devoting our lives to e-mail and we really don’t seem to notice that we have a problem. We check it at all times and places.
A: One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons—it was about a month ago—there’s a guy just going to bed and his wife is sleeping next to him, and the door to his bedroom is open and his boss is sitting there. He says, “Can you just do this one more thing before you turn down for the night?” Because e-mail has gone portable, and because we have a hard time shutting it off, it has exploded all the boundaries that we worked very hard to create.
Q: E-mail, you point out, is a drag on the economy at work because of the amount of time we spend on it, but outside of work we seem to be carving e-mail time out of family and friend time.
A: That’s another thing I found disturbing. I thought, “Well, maybe the e-mail explosion just means that people are watching less TV,” but it doesn’t. It means that they’re watching TV and emailing at the same time, or they’re just making extra time for the Internet. One of the stats that really disturbed me was that North Americans would spend a third of their lifetimes engaged in media. That was just like saying we work in order to participate in the virtual world.
Q: I was fascinated with the link of the slots—the slot lever—and the e-mail click.
A: There is something chemically that’s happening to us when we’re e-mailing, and that hasn’t really been studied very closely. You get used to being rewarded in the way that mail used to reward you by reminding you of your existence: you got mail? Ha, you’re alive! You’re needed. Someone wants to be in touch with you. But now that happens every minute. If you’re deprived of it, there’s the same deprivation that happens when you lose touch with any stimulant like that.
Q: A problem with e-mail that doesn’t seem to be arisen with the earlier communications is that very often we fail to understand it, mostly because we don’t get the tone.
A: With a letter at least you have handwriting, you have the texture of the paper, you have the ink that was chosen. There’s a whole host of cues that gives you some kind of clue as to what the mindset of the writer was. And then there’s the space and the kind of speed at which letter-writing occurred, which often meant that your immediate reactions, these kinds of unfiltered reactions, wouldn’t get communicated. But with e-mail it’s just stripped down to text. Unless you’re basically a professional writer, or someone who is extremely talented and good at manipulating language to say exactly what you mean, the chances are highly against you that your e-mail will be interpreted correctly.
Q: This inability to grasp the tone meshes neatly with a medium that’s inclined to disinhibition anyway. So everything just spirals worse?
A: Yes, the confusion over tone creates a kind of anxiety, which only gets ramped up with the speed, which only gets ramped up with the response—which gets intemperate faster on the Net than anywhere else—which can often lead to more anxiety, which can lead to anger. You know, any e-mail correspondence, to me, is always a few exchanges away from a fight.
Q: As you describe it, there are so many things in e-mail that combine in it to create stress: the way you want more of it whatever it says; the way you lose track of it; the way you feel its inherent demand for speed in responding. And you spend a little time talking about physical implications, including that we’ve always before done our reading by reflected light, not by beams going directly to our eyes.
A: I think there’s something very major in the way that we now spend seven, eight, nine hours a day looking at a screen and reading on a screen. When light is beamed into your eyes all day long it creates a weariness. And there have been some studies about the drop-off in eyesight, but more importantly I think the distance between you and a text is crucial to respect it, and that goes for letters too. When you look at a letter and it’s written on a paper or printed out, at least it’s an object. It forces you to slow down to read it.
Q: The one study you mention is an epidemic of myopia in Singapore—80 per cent of children?
A: Yeah, up from 25 per cent 30 years ago. It’s funny, a friend of mine who’s a novelist, he went to Singapore for a book tour and he said, “God, you would not believe the future of the Internet; it’s there in Singapore.” He described being on the subways and public transit and seeing people, everybody, instead of holding a newspaper or a book, everybody was holding a hand-held device or a screen.
Q: You think we’re only at the beginning of the tyranny of e-mail, a sobering thought given the current deluge and the current misunderstandings.
A: This sort of messageopolis is just beginning to build. The thing I’m trying to say is we’re all sort of engineers and builders in that process, and the thing that’s nice about e-mail is if you have lots of correspondents and you start to change your habits or your behaviour and your attitude towards it, it has a multiplying effect because every e-mail you don’t send means an e-mail someone else doesn’t receive.
Q: You make it sound almost like a 12-step program. The first step—don’t send an e-mail you don’t need to—is going to be the hardest. Anyone who drops out puts himself in the outer darkness, in the sense of some part of him will be worried that he’ll be forgotten.
A: Yeah, isn’t that the thing? When you get on e-mail in the morning and you don’t have your usual hefty batch you think, “What happened? Has everybody forgotten about me?”
Q: Tell me about your coping strategies.
A: One of the directions of the book, I hope, was to try to focus on what the purpose of communication was so that we could decide what the parameters we’d allow it within our lives. Communication isn’t just about sharing information for business and for the purpose of doing your day-to-day tasks at the office, it’s also about sharing something, and if you don’t have a life outside the office—which e-mail makes harder and harder—you won’t have anything to share.
Q: All this angst and worry over a communications tool that you argue—and this is your deepest worry—inexorably fragments our attention and strips us of the ability to think in more coherent ways. It robs us, you wrote.
A: In so many novels, you read scenes—perhaps less so now but certainly in the 19th century—where people were alone with their thoughts. How would that be portrayed now? You couldn’t actually portray it because the character would probably have an iPod plugged into his ear, and he’d be checking his BlackBerry every eight minutes. If you saw it written down you’d think, “Jesus Christ, this person’s crazy!” But if you spend a lot of time in an office and you do use these devices, that’s what our thoughts are like.
Q: And in the end we’ll have nothing worth emailing about. Perhaps a random series of fragmented tweets?
A: The progression of the technology is certainly telling! But the thing to me that’s slightly encouraging is there is drop-off. Not every grandmother around the country is tweeting, and they probably won’t, because I think people are beginning to realize that there are some thoughts which are actually not thoughts, and some thoughts just don’t need to be shared, and some observations can go unrecorded.