Overstuffed inboxes (or Law and technology 2)

The second article that caught my eye in Wired this month was Clive Thompson’s The Great American Timesuck. The article was singing the praises of AI-equipped email monitors like Xobni and ClearContext (which somehow I don’t think my IT manager would like, although he will be spared my trying to download either as we run on a thin-client system).

What caught my eye were the following paragraphs,

Artificial intelligence in the service of life-hacking: It’s the future of email.

And God knows we need a better future for email, because the present is intolerable. This once-miraculous productivity tool has metastasized into one of the biggest timesucks in American life. Studies show that there are 77 billion corporate email messages sent every day, worldwide. By 2012, that number is expected to more than double. The Radicati Group calculates that we already spend nearly a fifth of our day dealing with these messages; imagine a few years down the road, when it takes up 40 percentof our time. “It’s madness,” says Merlin Mann, who runs 43Folders.com, a leading productivity blog. “We’re all desperately trying to figure out how to cut stuff so we can get through the day, and it just gets harder and harder.” (Mann advocates dealing with incoming messages immediately so your inbox is always empty. Me [Thompson], I’ve got 12,802 messages in there right now.)

Why has email spun so badly out of control? Because it’s asymmetric — incredibly easy to send but often devilishly burdensome to receive.

For lawyers, where email is the preferred mode of communication, the above is all too true, and we are all having to deal with the problem of overstuffed inboxes.

Email appropriately

For further thoughts on reducing email, see Doug Cornelius’ blog post Email Deluge about trying to free yourself from email on KM Space and the comments string. And for a more lighthearted take, read Lucy Kellaway in Monday’s FT, Shock of BPC: before personal computers.

I have just started a 24-hour low-tech vigil to mark the stepping down of Bill Gates, who more than any other human being has made the modern office what it is. I wanted to celebrate his departure from full-time work at Microsoft by reminding myself of what life was like when windows were things that let the light in.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I composed an automatic e-mail reply that said: “Lucy Kellaway is in the office, but not on the computer. You can send me a letter, or ring, or visit me on the second floor.” Then I pressed Submit, but got a message saying: “Error. Database has too many unique field names. Ask administrator to compact database.” God, I hate computers.

I love them, too. I have no truck with the idea that they have frazzled our minds and shrunk our souls: most office workers seem to be doing perfectly well, as far as I can judge. Although I am addicted to e-mail, it’s quite under control. Twenty-four hours’ cold turkey would be no problem.

Email hell

One of my housekeeping tasks each day is to clear out both my inbox and my sent items each day, although there is an element of cheating, inasmuch as I often simply move the emails to two other folders: ‘client emails to be filed’ (which my secretary then deals with, although I am told SOS Direct will enable me to direct emails to the right client folder, once we get it) and ‘office emails to be filed’ (which I then archive every week or so). There is, however, a semblance of order although two days out of the office means a lot of “email cleansing” when I get back.

John Naughton’s post Controlling the email monster in his Memex 1.1 blog this morning (which in turn links to Luis Suarez’s I freed myself from E-mail’s grip) was spot on,

The bottom line, though, is that organisational email has to be brought back under control. Someone once told me that one of the big supermarket chains — it may be ASDA — has a policy in its open-plan HQ that when anyone’s on email they have to wear a red baseball cap. It’s wacky, but might just work.

The mess that is organisational email is actually a symptom of the failure of ICT systems to provide software services that workers really need. Why, for example, do you find that office workers have email inboxes with thousands of messages in them? Answer: because it gives them an electronic filing system that they can use. So instead of being an indicator of how hopeless people are at managing ICT, overflowing inboxes are actually a measure of how ingenious humans are when faced with useless technology.

I am not sure that red baseball caps will work for us (and some of my colleagues would never be able to take them off) but it’s an idea.

What is perhaps more interesting is how long emails will survive. My children now only use email to keep in touch with us; with each other it is instant messaging (and even with us: whether through Facebook or Skype). They don’t yet Twitter, but I am sure that they will soon.