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Email isn't the problem

The Atlantic recently posted another thinkpiece about email. The centrail question is: is email evil or are we?

The problem with this, and most other thinkpieces about email, is the conflation of two distinct questions or problems. First is a technological one and the other is a human one. Many of the articles that decry the use of email focus on how it impacts us as human beings: the stress, the anxiety, the time spent with email, people”s poor email etiquette, and so on. They then go one to discuss the technological merits of email and the rise of many ‘solutions” to the problem.

This is what companies like Slack want (or at least the hype surrounding it). They want to sell a technological solution to a human problem, which is great and all for their business but it doesn”t actually solve any real problem. Or at least not in the way that they want. Because, ultimately, the problem with email isn”t about technology. In fact, there are many good reasons to think email is a great technology (and one better than the solutions like Slack). In the end, it is really about what ideological commitments you have about technology (e.g., preference for open protocols or nice looking closed ecosystems).

One article claims that “60% of smartphone-using professionals spend a mind-boggling 72 hours a week (including weekends) connected to their jobs via email check-ins. For most of us, this is 32 hours more than we”re being paid for”. This certainly sounds like a dismal state of affairs. But here”s one claim about Slack”s user engagement, “engagement is of the charts, with users spending nearly 10 hours logged into the app everyday”. So, multiply this by seven days in a week and you”re at 70 hours a week that you”re connected to your job via Slack. Is this really an improvement?

Yes, one could argue that regardless of the time spent, it is undeniable that people find email stressful and, so far, we haven”t heard nearly the same frustration with using Slack (or whatever email killers people are attempting to use). So, even if this doesn”t actually reduce the amount of time we spend connected to our jobs, at least its reducing the psychological stress of dealing with email.

Which is only true if you think that the stress caused by email is inherent with the technology (as in, email itself causes stress, rather than the context in which we use it): “Even if email”s not outright evil, it does seem to be broken in some way. And if we”re the ones who broke it, it will be up to us to fix it, too.” (link to source). Again, even the article that at least partially claims that we are the evil ones, not email, ultimately grounds the problem with email in technology.

But this actually isn”t a technological problem. It”s only fairly recently in email”s long history that we”ve reached this point where people consider it ‘evil”. And it”s pretty easy to see that there is a correlation with these discussions about email being ‘evil” and its connection to the workplace. One begins to wonder if, perhaps, it is the workplace that is actually to be blamed for the evils of email.

From what I can tell, it is our workplace culture and capitalism as a whole that is to blame for the downfall of email. Looking above, it isn”t hard to imagine why people have come to hate email if it tacks on an extra 30 hours of uncompensated labour to our weeks. But this is exactly the same reason why people will come to hate Slack, since it has this exact same fault.

In a recent New Republic article about Zappos, I heard the concept of ‘work-life integration” for the first time and got a chill down my spine, “Zapponians, as the employees call one another, like to talk about “work-life integration” rather than work-life balance”. And while the situation at Zappos sounds like a dystopian hellscape for me, I guess this sort of thing is considered ‘progress” and the future of labour:

In today”s ever-updating, ever-mobile workforces, a professional”s time is precious, and he or she wants to optimize it as effectively as possible. Professionals in all industries are casting out the notions of work-life balance in order to build better work-life integration practices—where work and life are intertwined—by leveraging technology to make it happen.

Of which Zappos appears to be the apotheosis of this exact principle:

Work was fun, which is good, because people never really stopped working. Meetings might be scheduled at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, in the middle of what appeared to be a party but was really just an extension of the all-encompassing Zappos corporate culture.

It is a place where you live where you work and there is no real meaningful seperation between your work and your life. They are fully integrated.

I find myself unsurprised to see this gaining traction within the business world, since it turns something many people hated (workplace intrusions into personal time) into a desirable virtue. It creates a situation where labouring for an extra 30 hours a week without compensation is actually an aspirational goal and a sign of being successful. This is, perhaps, the most desirable end goal for late capitalism. As with Zappos, we”ll become tribalised based on which corporation we work for. And that, more than anything else, will become our primary ‘ethnic” identity. We”ll live and we”ll work there. And every minute of our day will be labour converted to capital.

Ultimately, this is what is wrong with email. It has been one step towards the future we appear to be heading towards. Before, when in person meetings and landlines were really the only way to contact people, this required your physical presence. You could not get work-related phone calls at home, because your work phone was at a fixed, unmoveable location. Email isn”t the only thing that has enabled worker mobility (cell phones, laptops, video calls, etc). All the things that allow for a geographically and temporally distributed workforce.

Email sucks and is evil because it has come to represent the expectation that we labour under capitalism without compensation. Slack and similar attempts to kill email don”t solve this basic problem. Having a more ‘convenient” or centralized tool demanding your uncompensated labour isn”t a helpful solution. And while this notion of work-life integration is a solution of a kind – since it probably does eliminate the harm caused by uncompensated labour via transforming this into a desirable virtue – it certainly isn”t the solution I”d want for myself.

Personally, I don”t even think that work-life balance is substantively better than integration. It suggests that capitalism”s ability to exploit my labour should have an equal (or greater) consideration to the parts of my life that aren”t currently exploitable. A suggestion I also reject.

I”m not quite sure what a good solution for any of this is (beyond dismantling capitalism as a whole). I think, at the very least, if everyone simply refused to work without compensation we”d come to hate email (and whatever else) just a little less.