I have given up on e-mail.
E-mail is not the efficient tool it was purported to be. It is yet another means of procrastination. It has institutionalized flakiness and engendered myriad excuses for not fulfilling obligations (“Oh, I never received that e-mail”; “My computer has a virus”). E-mail has made it impossible to pin people down, whereas it was supposed to ease communication. But the problem with e-mail is not intrinsic; it is the way we abuse it that has rendered it a failure.
Before e-mail, our society treasured communication. The United States Postal Service’s motto is, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It prides itself on its dedication to delivering messages. A failed delivery was and is an anomaly. On the other hand, a “MAILER-DAEMON” rudely informs me of its unsuccessful delivery attempts quite frequently. What exactly is a MAILER-DAEMON and why is the devil communicating with me via e-mail? A letter is also something tangible and personal. Think about how eagerly you awaited a letter from your parents at sleepaway camp. Likewise, letters kept soldier morale high during the World Wars as sweethearts wrote to each other across the globe.
Or consider Humphrey Bogart’s use of the telephone in the 1941 film noir classic, “The Maltese Falcon.” He coolly executes orders with the sole purpose of arranging a time and place to meet in person. Yalies, on the other hand, write e-mails even though we live two seconds away from each other. It is absurd that there are some people I regularly communicate with by e-mail that I have never met before in person. E-mail creates artificial distance between individuals, whereas technology is supposed to eliminate communication barriers.
E-mail is especially cumbersome when trying to arrange a meeting time. One can often spend more time attempting to find an appropriate date to meet than the meeting would actually take. E-mail also fails when, after calmly e-mailing a professor to ask for a paper extension, he or she neglects to write you back. This leads to frantic e-mail checking where a quick phone call would ease your nerves. Finally, when applying to that crucial summer internship, the chances of having your application lost greatly increase when you send it by e-mail. And besides, do you even know if the e-mail address an internship’s Web site gave you exists, and if so, who is checking the e-mail account?
E-mail can also become a distraction in class, or rather, an obsession. I refer specifically to the student in lecture who types away at his or her laptop, alternating between taking class notes on digital looseleaf paper and checking e-mail. How important are you that you have to respond to e-mail during that world-class 75-minute lecture? Get off your high horse, stop distracting other students and take out a pen and paper like everyone else.
Even as we abuse e-mail, it is invariably useful and effective in other cases. There is no more convenient form of communication when you are in a different time zone or in another country. E-mail is infinitely more affordable and speedy than the telephone or snail mail when traveling. It keeps people all over the planet connected as no other form of technology ever has.
The challenge is how to make e-mail as effective as it was intended to be. Achieving this will first require us not to take advantage of e-mail’s unique luxury — that you can write and respond to e-mails at your leisure. To make e-mail use efficient, we must make a societal commitment to respond to e-mail whenever we check it. If you do not have time to respond when you check it, at least flag the e-mail for follow-up or put the e-mail in a separate “For Follow-up” folder. Finally, some e-mail users get dissuaded from writing an e-mail back because they think it will take too much time. If you find yourself spending more than 15 minutes on an e-mail, chances are a phone call or meeting over dinner would be more effective and infinitely more social.
Until we use e-mail responsibly and considerately as a university and society, just give me a call.
Steven Engler is a junior in Saybrook College.