From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 26, 2015*: Sticking to the Basics

Numerous times in the past I've noted that for me email is the ultimate digital tool. I wouldn't necessarily feel that this bears repeating, but considering that the last time I noted this was quite a number of years ago, and digital technologies have, since then, undergone vast changes, it seems to call out for reevaluation. Is that really still the case? Am I really all that retro that after numerous years of digital development, with new tools appearing (and disappearing) at an almost frantic pace, I still cling to email as my favorite tool?

It might, perhaps, be taking things too far to claim that my email is my operating system, but I think I can fairly state that it's the hub of the vast majority of my digital activity. Yes, I save files on my hard drives (and in Dropbox, and in my Google Drive, and on a couple of backup drives, and on the thumb drive I keep in my pocket almost all the time) but I also save a very significant amount of all I write as attachments in my mail, and most of the PDF booklets related to education that I download get saved not only somewhere on my hard drive (or drives), but to my mail as well. One of the very best investments I've made over the years is the monthly $2 that goes to Google in order to expand my account to 100GB.

I admit that for a few years, way back in the digital dark ages, I had my doubts about web-based mail. I was one of those people who thought that it was little more than a cute add-on to the "real" thing, basically a sort-of pre-Dropbox repository that allowed me to move items from computer to computer but little else. Fifteen years ago I even published a (Hebrew) article about web-based mail that stressed its benefits but, if I remember correctly, placed greater emphasis on its limitations. For many of us web-based mail was a first taste of cloud-computing (well before that term took off) and there seemed to be something too ephemeral about it to justify our truly taking it seriously. But of course it wasn't long afterwards that I abandoned all of the various desktop mail programs that I'd tried, having become convinced that unless for some inexplicable reason my employers required their use they'd become totally anachronistic.

But although web-based mail may have fully eclipsed its desktop counterpart, today simply relying on (let alone actually feeling attached to) email probably dates me as much as using desktop mail did a few years back. Email? Who uses email? There are so many newer, and without a doubt sexier, tools. Many of these grow out of the ubiquity of the smartphone and its constant availability. Maybe once, long ago, we sent mail because we thought that the person for whom it was intended would be checking mail only when he or she was in front of a computer which, strange as it may seem, wasn't always. Today, however, it is close to always, so instant messaging, or even Skyping, not to mention using WhatsApp and/or numerous similar tools makes email anachronistic. Why should we expect people to communicate only when they're sitting at a desk in front of a computer? Convincing people that it's really a cool tool is probably a losing battle.

For me my email is considerably more than just a preferred method of correspondence, and a vast repository of that. It's an external hard-drive that plays the part of an external memory. Numerous times each month (and probably each week) I'll run a search for something that over the years has accumulated by me, and of which I probably have only a vague recollection - enough to (usually) find via a search. Perhaps I'll want to know what else I've saved by a certain columnist, or with whom I've corresponded concerning a particular idea. A recent study reported that the brain apparently works best when it saves files to logically organized folders rather than simply saving anywhere and relying on search to get back to it. But when you've been using gmail since June of 2004 (two months after it started) as I have, folders have a way of being highly unmanageable, not to mention unworkable. Perhaps I should be jealous of anyone who throughout eleven and a half years has succeeded in logically filing the ever-changing snippets of thought that comprise his or her digital life into logical folders. It seems to me that being able to find something in a logically constructed filing system over so many years is a sign of having a very limited, and far from dynamic, realm of interests. So rather than being jealous of such people, I tend to feel sorry for them. If their lives are compartmentalized to such a degree that they're able to maintain a workable filing system they're probably leading rather dull lives. Without gmail's search function I would have long ago lost any chance of delving into my digital past.

I suppose that one can make a convincing case that my continued attachment to email stems from what might be called the Simon and Garfunkel approach to feeling groovy. But frankly, I very rarely complain about (technological) things moving too fast. I was an early adopter of ICQ, even though I wasn't sure why I might really want it. It's not that I didn't see real value in instant messaging (if that's what it's called today). I definitely felt it had real advantages which I suppose has been proven by the proliferation, and success, of numerous similar tools, each in turn giving way to something more instant and easy to use. In a similar manner, I see nothing wrong with using Twitter, even though pretty much everything that I write far exceeds its 140 character limit. But I resist the suggestion that seems inherent in the continued development of tools of this sort that the ultimate objective is faster and shorter. I become acutely aware that I don't really fit into today's zeitgeist when people tell me they don't have time for a long letter. If what they meant by that was that extra effort, a la Blaise Pascal and others, is required to make things brief I'd perhaps understand them. But that's far from the case. Getting a point across telegraphically (now there's an anachronism) is a valuable skill, but it's not necessarily always desirable. Conversely, being lengthy isn't necessarily a virtue, but it does permits us to examine an issue from numerous perspectives, and more often than not the issues that interest me can't, and shouldn't, be condensed into short comments, no matter how pithy. What's more, the longer the letter the better the chance that personality gets properly expressed.

But actually, these are side issues to what I like about email. Yes, it has drawbacks, but these are far outweighed by its advantages. For me its most positive aspect is that it somehow (and probably unintentionally) achieves the proper mix of immediacy and a-synchronicity. Even though there are apparently (still?) some people who get stressed out when a new message arrives in their inbox, email is on the whole a rather laid-back tool. If our email messages (letters? notes? or simply "emails"? - the noun we choose probably expresses the way we relate to the tool, and how much importance we place on it) create too much stress we're probably expecting, or demanding, too much from them. The arrival of a message doesn't have to compel us to immediately click into it. Leaving it to find its way to the bottom of the pile isn't particularly desirable either, but even if it does it's not the end of the world. In this sense email is very different from instant messaging which seems by definition to assume that whatever is sent demands a quick response. As opposed to instant messaging, email has a measured pace that somehow seems to reach the proper Goldilocksian median, while at the same time being flexible enough to encompass almost any content. Can any other tool make such a claim?

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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