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Email, a recent book argues, has cannibalized the workplace and introduced a debilitating hyperactivity into our lives. June 10, 2021
The Social Order
Technology and Innovation

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, by Cal Newport (Portfolio, 320 pp., $27)

A friend recently told me about his struggles at work, in a re-opened office. He was putting in long hours, but he perceived a pervasive irony: “It seems nearly impossible to get work done while in the office.” He was convinced that the solution was to increase his hours. Only by staying later, after his coworkers had gone home, could he finally accomplish anything. Most of us will recognize this story. The contemporary office can be a web of disorienting, and constant, distractions.

In his newest book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, Georgetown University computer scientist Cal Newport takes up the crisis of contemporary work. In Newport’s description, the “hyperactive hive mind”—which he defines as “a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services”—characterizes our approach to work. Our workdays, he argues, are defined by the absence of structure: while working, we are bombarded by a continuous flow of unstructured and random modes of communication to which we must regularly attend.

Newport identifies the rise of email—admittedly, not a new development—as the principal factor contributing to this reality. In some respects, email has made communication simpler and more efficient. The ability to send a short message to a colleague is not only a tremendous help with respect to time management but can also be an effective tool to coordinate activities involving others. But the inbox has become more than a tool to assist with effective communication and group-work coordination. To borrow a phrase from political philosopher Joshua Mitchell, email has gone from being a supplement to a substitute.

The onslaught of the inbox induces malaise and significantly impairs our productivity. Constant and unstructured communication hurts our capacity to do good work. Frequent context shifts—incessantly checking our inbox or Slack while trying to work—inhibit focus and deep thought. The discipline and attention needed to perform the task before us are hard to muster in an environment where the hyperactive hive mind “determines how our daily efforts unfold.”

The notion that “email is our job” erodes our equilibrium. The more that shallow activities requiring no tangible, meaningful skills come to define work, the more unhappy we will likely become. The hyperactive hive mind can become a kind of sickness—one that some organizations consciously perpetuate, and to which others have unconsciously submitted. Newport observes that “today, now thoroughly entangled in the hive mind’s demands, we find ourselves crushed by shallow busyness and struggling to get important work done, all the while feeling increasingly miserable.” The decline in work satisfaction, along with sustained experiences of burnout and fatigue, seems a natural result.

Perhaps the most significant challenge that email creates is what Neil Postman calls “the Frankenstein syndrome.” Major social and cultural changes often occur slowly, without warning, and often apart from the intentions of the originators of such change. As Newport rightly judges, email is not simply a technological “additive” to our work; like Frankenstein’s monster, it has “a mind of its own” and has become uncontrollable. In Newport’s judgment, the rise of email has caused many to feel “lost” in their professions—even transforming those professions’ ultimate goals.

Newport’s proposed fixes include many worthy components. He defends time-block planning and argues that companies should foster a cultural environment where people can be more focused on their work. As a university professor, Newport has long supported the idea that organizations implement “office hours.” Such a practice would cut down on interruptions and distractions people face when trying to get their work done. When a question or pressing need arises, one can bring this to his or her coworker during their slated office hours.

But any practical applications for countering the hyperactive hive mind are secondary to a larger principle: Newport’s call to develop habits of solitude. It is certainly true, as he notes, that “not everyone does deep work all the time” of the sort that would require solitude. But as Hannah Arendt argued, solitude is a reflective stance toward existence, a lens through which we come to see the world more clearly. When we dwell in environments that undermine our capacity for solitude, Arendt wrote, we experience loneliness, become unable to think, and grow disconnected from ourselves and others. To Arendt, “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realised in solitude.”

Newport’s diagnosis of the nature and practice of our work has much to recommend it. Yet the picture he paints extends well beyond the confines of the contemporary workplace. Our constant connectivity and distractedness generate a type of social hyperactivity. We should reject this debilitating worldview.

Photo: Rawpixel/iStock

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