If you hate email, it’s probably because you work an office job where wrangling your messages is central to getting things done. Tasks arrive unbidden, dispatched impersonally from silent co-workers sitting mere feet away and stacked into a giant pile with no end.
It wasn’t always like this. In the past, managers might have used computers to create or review reports or ledgers. But the job itself remained elsewhere—on the phone with clients or prospects, in meetings with teammates or executives, and so on.
Email changed all that. The inbox became a to-do list, and everything started to flow through it. The ting of a new email elicits panic because it signals the arrival of a new toil: a new assignment from a boss, a request from a colleague, a policy notice from human resources, an announcement from management, a networking request from a stranger. You didn’t ask for any of these, but now you have to deal with them—even if just to press delete.
Email overload has become a backwards point of pride. “I get several hundred emails a day,” I heard someone say at a recent corporate event. “At least.” It’s a lamentation, but also a boast. Productivity signals personal value, and email offers an easy way to quantify it. Maintaining “inbox zero” is a display of willpower and efficiency, every new missive “triaged” as if the office were a military front or an emergency room. More recently, groupware programs such as Slack have tried to sublimate work email into chat rooms, but that works only inside an organization; there’s no stopping the email from outside customers, suppliers, or colleagues from arriving. As an old tech-industry aphorism puts it, email is the cockroach of the internet. It will outlast every technology fashion.