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Book Review: The Tyranny of Email

The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand Year Journey To Your Inbox
By John Freeman
Scribner, 2009

John Freeman’s slim, heartfelt screed The Tyranny of Email opens with a quote from Gandhi, a preposterous understatement, and an unsubstantiated statistic. This isn’t the best way to begin an attack on a daily mainstay of your readers’ lives.

The preposterous understatement comes after Freeman – the impossibly young new editor of Granta – lists some of the benefits of email:

Today we can type a note on our computer in New York and it will be received in New Zealand in nanoseconds. We use e-mail to send documents, music, wills, photographs, spreadsheets, and floor plans, communicate with our banks, send invitations. We no longer have to fill out those irritating forms to receive a return receipt by post, proof that our important letter arrived. The computer does it for us.

And then he somewhat grudgingly says, “some of this is a good thing.”

Some of it? All of the things Freeman lists are undoubtedly good things, and all of the things he doesn’t list would fill an entire book the size of this one. We use email to stay in touch with our friends and relatives, ask quick questions (for which we’d like quick answers) of colleagues, employers, employees, service companies, etc., make or confirm important appointments, check whether or not we have the right destination in mind before we go all the way over there, make and receive job offers, and a hundred other things that were far more time-consuming, cumbersome, and inexact before email. Then there’s the literary publishing world of which Freeman himself is a part: conferring with fellow editors, dealing with freelance submissions, working up documents for final revisions – is Freeman too young to remember what a logistical nightmare such things were when done via mail and carbon copies, or is Granta stodgy enough not to care?

The unsubstantiated statistic follows right after this: “Information overload is a $650 billion drag on the U.S. economy every year.”

Oh please. If anything at all were a “$650 billion” drag on the economy every year, that thing would be firebombed by Special Ops team by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, and that would be the end of that. Not only is no source given for this scarifying number, but no source could be given – what on Earth does “information overload” even mean? More importantly, where will you find three people who agree on what it means?

Freeman throws these things out there in advance of his main argument, which is that the burgeoning of email, “the techno-rave of send and receive” (as he more than once breathlessly refers to it), is deteriorating our interpersonal skills, eroding our free time, destroying our ability to be still, ruining our powers of concentration, and conspiring to murder President Lincoln. His book takes us on a fairly standard tour of the history of interpersonal communication, from stone tablets to postal service to telegrams. It’s done with more wit and prose-writing ability than what you’d find if you typed “correspondence” into Wikipedia, but there are no more facts and no better documentation.

It’s all foundation for his main point, delivered in the book’s concluding chapters, “Manifesto For A Slow Communication Movement” and “Don’t Send.” In these chapters, Freeman outlines his plan to fix all the information overload floating around these days, and it’s a plan that would win Nancy Reagan’s approval: it all boils down to abstinence.

He argues that email is killing us, and he’s not above a little speechifying to get his point across:

The ultimate form of progress, however, is learning to decide what is working and what is not; and working at this pace, e-mailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and communities. We can change this; we have to change it. This book has been an attempt to step back from the frenzy and the flurry of the now – the now we have created and the now we have to slowly remove ourselves from – to make this argument. Of course e-mail is good for many things; that has never been in dispute. But we need to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives.

The natural response to all this — “By all means, you remove yourself from the ‘frenzy’ right away! Take as much time at your calligraphy as you need, and rejoin us when you’re rested” — is easy but not entirely cheap. Much of The Tyranny of Email could be summarized in an email: “Sorry. Having a bad day.” The problem here isn’t common sense, it’s common narcissism: instead of concluding that he’s bad at handling email, Freeman decides email is bad. It isn’t. It’s a miracle. It can be abused just like anything else, but if it’s eroding your personal time and destroying your ability to read, it’s because you’ve let it do those things. Freeman’s book has its share of flaws (Star Trek: The Next Generation is not, for instance, an “ongoing television drama,” nor do wolves “haunt Central Park at night”), but by far the biggest one is that it never acknowledges – nor even seems to conceive – that there are levels of self-control that fall short of throwing your computer out the window and joining an ashram.

Like it or not (and only a “crank,” as Freeman confesses himself to be, would not), the technology of interpersonal communication has advanced beyond hand-delivered cards and letters, and society has to adjust. Those who’d rather not adjust are free to opt out – but kindly don’t drag the rest of us back to the escritoire with you.