For many years, I worked in an office with a desk, a bookshelf and three chairs. It had a door to close when secrets were shared or noise intruded. The tools of my trade were an electric typewriter and a telephone with an intercom and a hold button. A secretary in another room answered the phones. She left a call-back note on my desk when I was in a meeting. At 5 p.m., we locked the front door, suspending the work with the turn of a key. The next day, we picked up where we left off.
My typewriter was displaced by a clunky Zenith computer whose floppy-disk drive responded only to acolytes who had memorized the requisite DOS commands. People like me who struggled with DOS rejoiced in 1984 when the Apple Macintosh made DOS obsolete. Eventually, despite an institutional reluctance to invest in new technology, our office toolkit was upgraded with a facsimile machine, call-waiting, voice mail, electronic mail and, finally, cellphones. A co-worker, having landed a new job, exulted that her boss had given her a BlackBerry—a status-conferring perquisite in those days. It didn't take long for her to realize that it wasn't so much a perk as it was a yoke to keep her on the job until midnight.
She wasn't the only one awake to catch Johnny Carson's final guest. Plenty of midnight oil had been burned as millions of people—infatuated by a new, "You've got mail!" AOL account—traded e-mail with everyone they could. "Infatuation" ("with a new way of being friends") is what the late Nora Ephron labeled Stage 1 in her wry taxonomy "The Six Stages of E-mail." In Stage 2, infatuation yields to the realization that typing an e-mail is not the same as composing a letter, but e-mailing is more efficient than telephoning. In Stage 3, the barbarians are at the gates offering penis enlargement, must-watch videos, spa-day packages, FW: 7 Dangers to Human Virtue and a succession of "Snopes-verified" defamations. By the fourth stage, Ephron is disenchanted by a torrent of e-mail from people who don't even know her telephone number. Nevertheless, she is drawn to the inbox again and again in a Pavlovian response to arriving messages. In Ephron's penultimate stage, "Accommodation," she dispenses with accumulated e-mail with the likes of: "Yes. No. No :). No :(. Can't. No way. Maybe. Doubtful. Sorry. So Sorry. Thanks. No thanks." And finally, in Stage 6, irony takes center stage in two words—"Call me."
My own experience with e-mail is less ironic. Ephron's assertion that e-mail is "intimate but not, chatty but not, communicative but not" seems a bit precious. Granted, it is no candlelight dinner, but e-mail is as valuable as word-processing software to a dyed-in-the-wool scribbler like me. I have never reached Ephron's Stage 4 disenchantment. I would rather spend eight hours writing a letter than talking for eight minutes on a telephone.
But then, I am not deluged with e-mail as Ephron was. I thought e-mail's popularity was declining. I don't get as many as I used to on weekdays, and the weekend is down to a trickle. So I was surprised that "e-mail remains the most common form of communication in the business space," according to The Radicati Group, a market research company in California. On average, today's office worker receives 85 e-mails a day and sends 36. Those numbers are projected to increase in each of the next five years. It seems that e-mailing has become an essential task in the Information Age workday. If so, does it add value? Increase productivity?
Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein don't think so. "Soul-sucking work" is how Rosenstein described it to Michael Liedtke of the Associated Press recently. The two young entrepreneurs, wealthy alumni of Facebook and Google, lead a start-up company called Asana whose hybrid software promises "teamwork without e-mail." A prototype is currently used by Facebook employees to manage projects, and Rosenstein says Asana clients have seen reductions of up to 80 percent in their e-mail traffic. (I'll bet the Asana software has no "reply all" option.)
Recalling my telephone & typewriter days, I try to imagine how a daily flood of 100-plus e-mails would have impacted me and my fellow workers. It seems like a straightforward, zero-sum calculation, but there are efficiencies that offset the workload imposed by electronic mail. Had we had e-mail, we would have typed fewer memos, filed fewer carbon copies, attended fewer meetings and made fewer telephone calls. E-mail would have certainly added to our workload, but we would have been more productive.
My back-of-the-envelope productivity calculation evokes the management bromide we heard too often as budgets were cut—"do more with less." Any "office-automation initiative" in those days required a "bill-payer." In other words, if you sought to do more with less by replacing typewriters with computers, you had to show a resultant dollar benefit.
The most expedient way of doing that was to sacrifice the secretaries. They were vulnerable. Their jobs had already been undermined by computer-based telephone systems with call-waiting, call-forwarding and voice mail. Not so many years later, then, most of the secretaries are gone, as are the typewriters on which they plied their trade. Cubicles have replaced offices. The 40-hour workweek is elastic. Voice mail is passé! The telephone is fast becoming a machine for texting, not talking. The trend favors cool technological efficiency over the warmth of human interaction.
Ephron faulted e-mail for suppressing the human voice. E-mail's "new way of being friends with people" proved to be superficial and overwhelming. For her, "call me" was as much a plea as it was a dodge.