Going Postal

I am sitting at my desk, looking for ways to avoid writing this piece. That’s nothing new, and I know I am in good company. Writers have long looked for excuses not to write. It used to be that I spent the early part of each day lingering over the newspaper, or walking down two flights of stairs in my house to get a cup of tea or toast up a bagel. But eventually – after 20 or 30 minutes, sometimes an hour – I would settle down and put in two, three, or sometimes even four hours of solid work before lunch and then repeat the ritual in the afternoon. E-mail has changed all that. Suddenly, it seems to have invaded my life, an intermittent but relentless demand on my attention from early in the morning until shortly before sleep. What began as the mildest of diversions – a couple of notes a day from friends in distant cities with whom I was happy to be more connected – has grown into as many as two or three dozen exchanges, most of them focused on work. I now find myself logging on as many as ten times each day to see what new e-mail has arrived. In the evenings, after dinner, I walk up to my office yet again, knowing that my wife won’t object because she, too, regularly checks her e-mail.

E-mail’s intoxicating qualities are now well known: It’s convenient, efficient, simple, and informal, a way to stay connected to more people, a democratizing force in the workplace and less intrusive than the telephone. But as e-mail proliferates, its more pernicious effects are increasingly evident. Much as it facilitates the conduct of business, e-mail is threatening to overrun people’s lives. It’s no longer uncommon for executives – even those at middle levels – to receive 100 to 150 e-mails a day – a veritable torrent that floods “24-7,” to use the macho shorthand of e-business. At a subtler level, e-mail celebrates transaction more than engagement, bite-size information rather than considered reflection, connection without commitment. In the name of better and speedier communication, e-mail can be rude, clipped, superficial, and depressingly desiccated. A boon when it comes to making lunch dates and answering yes-or-no questions, it is also an insistent source of distraction from more demanding work. E-mail has proved fiercely addictive – cocaine for compulsive achievers.

Robert Iger, the chairman of ABC, is nothing if not disciplined. He awakens in the dark each day at 4:30 a.m. in order to read four newspapers. After that, he works out at the gym near his office on the Upper West Side, eats a small breakfast, and arrives at his desk by seven. For years, nothing interfered with this regimen. Then along came e-mail.

“It’s just completely changed the rhythms of my workday,” Iger admitted recently, sounding sheepish. “I try to avoid turning on the computer when I wake up now, because I know if I do, I won’t read my newspapers. By the time I do log on, around 6 a.m., 25 messages have accumulated from Europe and California since I last checked before going to sleep. When I get to work and sit down at my desk, there’s often some document in my in-box that I need to read. But meanwhile, the e-mails keep arriving. It really affects your attention span. All of a sudden, you find yourself turning around in your chair just to see what’s there. Without thinking about it, you start answering them, and before long, 40 minutes has gone by. I now find myself purposely avoiding meetings just to handle the increasing volume of e-mail. I haven’t been able to discipline myself yet to put off looking at them – and I’m not sure if I ever will.”

At least two factors feed e-mail’s seductive power. One is the middle ground that it offers between the desire to be productive (or at least to feel productive) and the utterly human inclination to avoid challenging work. “We typically choose to do the thing that demands the least of us first,” says Sherry Turkle, a sociologist affiliated with MIT’s Science, Technology and Society program and author of Life on the Screen. “E-mail has been constructed so that you can do the business at hand easily and efficiently. You have the sense, sitting at your keyboard, of orchestrating a life. It feels satisfying and productive without much effort.”

The other irresistible lure of e-mail is more primal. “It’s the power of intermittent reinforcement,” argues Lee Sproull, a professor of business at New York University who has spent the past fifteen years studying e-mail. “The computer is now the ultimate Skinner box. You keep coming back for the reward.”

There is considerable gratification that comes from forever being needed, wanted – popular, even. “It’s sort of the way you used to feel about mail arriving from the postman,” explains Sarah Crichton, the publisher of Little, Brown. “Possibly, just possibly, there would be something wonderful in one of those envelopes that would delight you, make your heart race a little faster. The difference with e-mail is that it keeps arriving all day long.”

All this compulsive checking and replying necessarily carves up days into smaller and smaller bits. What gets sacrificed is the depth and richness that grows out of sustained, absorbed attention to a single task. Instead, multitasking – the capacity to do more than one thing at a time – has become a desirable skill for overburdened executives. “I can do my e-mail while I’m talking on the phone,” says Lauren Zalaznick, head of original programming for VH1. “I know it’s rude, but I can also take a meeting and do e-mail at the same time. Basically, e-mail goes with almost everything.”

Zalaznick is sitting across the desk from me as we talk. She never strikes me as harried, but there are several odd moments when I sense that she isn’t completely there. Only later does she acknowledge that during our time together, she received fourteen e-mails and managed to quietly respond to most of them, tapping away at a silent keyboard hidden below desk height. As far as she’s concerned, there’s no choice. If Zalaznick doesn’t multitask, there’s no way to get all of her work done – much less leave the office in time to hang out with her two young children and put them to bed.

“There’s no question that e-mail increases efficiency,” explains Esther Dyson, who heads the high-tech consulting company EDventure Holdings. “The problem is that it increases the efficiency of the next guy, too, so no one really feels more efficient.”

The next time I experience what I have come to call The Pause is during a telephone conversation with Sarah Crichton. This time, I can’t resist a small dig. “You don’t happen to be answering your e-mail, do you?” I ask.

“How did you know?” Crichton replies, slightly abashed. Then she makes a confession: “During meetings in my office, when I have to dig in deep and really think about something that makes me antsy, I’ll often swivel in my chair and start answering e-mails. I don’t even notice I’m doing it, but the people I work with have learned to call me on it.”

Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, has recognized another way that e-mail costs him. “It’s a refuge when you don’t want to grapple with something else, but it also works the other way,” he says. “Whenever I have a free moment now, I turn to e-mail. It’s probably taken away the last few minutes in my life that were available for pure reflection.”

For many, leaving the office scarcely means logging off. “The umbilical cord is longer than it’s ever been,” explains ABC’s Iger. On the weekends, like many of his fellow executives, he still manages to check his e-mail at least three times a day – and does so just as frequently when he’s in Tokyo or Shanghai on business. America Online recently commissioned a study of Internet use and found that 47 percent of users now take their laptops on vacation, and 26 percent check their e-mail. “I’ve played the game of not taking my laptop on vacation,” explains Barry Schuler, president of AOL Interactive Services. “What happens is that you sit there on the beach, gazing out into the ocean, but you can’t relax because you’re thinking about how many e-mails are accumulating in your in-box. I finally decided that I’m willing to take a couple of hours each day on vacation discreetly off in a corner doing my e-mail. It’s worth feeling like a jerk in order to know that I’m on top of everything and I’m not going to return to 1,000 unanswered e-mails.”

Not long ago, Schuler and his boss, Robert Pittman, got to talking about feeling enslaved by e-mail. They decided that one antidote might be to institute companywide e-mail-free weekends: If you don’t have a piece of pressing business, you are encouraged not to log on at all. Of course, Schuler sees most of his business as pressing, so he rarely abstains. When VH1’s Zalaznick had her second child two years ago, she found that nights afforded an unexpected opportunity. “I’d get up at 3 or 4 a.m. each night to nurse my baby,” she explains. “In the peacefulness and bondingness of it all, I’d find myself holding her in one arm while reading and typing e-mails with the other.”

In the emerging e-mail etiquette, a great deal is sacrificed in the name of efficiency. “E-mail may be the rudest form of communication yet invented,” says Nathan Myhrvold, until recently the chief technology officer at Microsoft.

E-mail eliminates tone of voice, body language, and the sort of social cues and contexts that make it possible to distinguish between different messages intended by the same words. In technological terms, e-mail has a limited emotional bandwidth. Because messages are typically written quickly and in compressed form, it’s scarily easy for misunderstandings to occur. An abbreviated response that would fly smoothly in conversation can be read as brusque or dismissive in e-mail, partly because no greeting or sign-off is expected. And even highly literate people feel free to send e-mails filled with typos, spelling errors, incomplete sentences, bad grammar, and no capital letters or punctuation at all.

Of course, it plays both ways. The same breezy informality that frees people to be curt, sloppy, and rude in e-mail also promotes a certain openness and intimacy not encouraged by other forms of communication. NYU’s Sproull refers to it as a “disinhibiting” effect. “It’s not unlike what happens when people put on masks and Halloween costumes,” she explains.

“I am much more intimate and personal in e-mail than I am anywhere else,” says Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of USA Networks. “That may be just because everyone, including me, is all closed off and constipated, but whatever the reasons, there’s a real value to it. In talking, my cognitive process is instinctive and reactive. With e-mail, the process is primarily written. I have to focus on what I’m going to say, compose sentences, make myself understood, reflect before I react. I might be just as tough in writing as I would be verbally – but then I read what I’ve written and edit myself.”

Nathan Myhrvold has had just the opposite experience. With this loosening of inhibitions, he says, comes a certain rashness – a tendency to act out. “Just because you have a little more time to reflect with e-mail doesn’t mean you do,” Myhrvold argues. “E-mail emboldens people. It makes them more extreme. There’s something cathartic about pushing the send button, even when you’re sending something you may later regret.”

The instant intimacy fostered by e-mail is not unlike the exchange you might have with someone in a bar late at night after a couple of drinks, when even the most revelatory exchanges somehow don’t fully count. “E-mail relationships are a way to bond very quickly,” says Zalaznick. “You don’t have to spend much time on them. They’re safe. And you can bail out at any point without significant consequences.” That’s also precisely their limitation: Real engagement is messy, time-consuming, and exacting in a way that e-mail is not. “E-mail is sort of deadening – a little bit like turning Technicolor into black and white,” says Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work.

One of the ironies of e-mail is that it can be so isolating. “When you log on, you feel like you’re in touch with everything that’s going on in the world,” says Judith Regan, publisher of Regan Books. “But what you really are is out of touch – literally. There is no touching anymore. We started this century with small communities and large families and neighbors visiting each other. We’re ending it alone in a room with a joystick.” As it happens, Regan herself is so busy that I’ve only been able to catch up with her by calling on a Sunday morning. “This is a perfect example,” she says. “Here I am, sitting at home in front of my computer answering e-mail at ten in the morning when I should be in bed with a handsome guy making love.”

Instead, the handsome guy has been replaced by hundreds of semi-strangers forever wanting to do virtual business. “The convenience of e-mail is far outweighed by the fact that more people have my attention,” says Hochschild. “What happens is that because people can reach me more easily by e-mail, I end up in communication with more people who are peripheral to my life while not making enough time for the people who are primary.”

One solution for overburdened e-mail users is to use multiple addresses, including one that is made available only to a small number of key people. Of course, that means checking for e-mail at more than one address, itself time-consuming. Some people are turning to filters, now built into most e-mail programs, to sort and prioritize their incoming mail.

Brian Reid is a research manager at Lucent who has been using e-mail since the late sixties; he helped develop the technology as a Carnegie Mellon grad student. Reid, who receives as many as 2,000 messages a day, has perhaps the most sophisticated sorting system yet devised. One filter displays any block of messages from the same address or on the same subject as a cluster so that he can decide in a quick glance whether any of them merit his attention. Another tells him when he has received multiple messages from the same sender in a certain period of time – on the grounds that it might suggest an emergency. (It’s never happened, but you can’t be too careful.) Incoming mail from close family members beeps in different tones that Reid can recognize.

But in the end, even the most elaborate systems can do only so much. Like many others, Reid now spends much of his day checking, reading, and sending e-mail, including at least a couple of hours at home each night. In virtuality, the attempt to log off is the equivalent of trying to eat just one potato chip. “My wife will often say to me, “Dear, will you turn that thing off and come to bed?” Reid acknowledges. “But for me, being plugged in is just part of who I am.”

Sarah Crichton manages to take a few hours off from work between the time she gets home and when her 9-year-old daughter goes to bed. Then she’s back in front of her laptop around 10:30 or 11 answering e-mail. The difference is that she does so while sitting in bed, alongside her husband, who has his own laptop. “This wasn’t the sort of romantic image we had of ourselves when we fell in love twenty years ago,” Crichton acknowledges. “But the truth is, we’re both pretty content doing it.”

As for the telephone conversation we’ve been having, Crichton insists she’s resisted answering a single e-mail during our 45-minute chat. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t stolen an occasional glance at the incoming flow. “I’ve got twelve new messages,” she suddenly volunteers. “This is very exciting. It’s been good talking with you, but I have to hang up now.”

Going Postal