My kids never had the chance to experience the thrill of a heartfelt exchange that traveled with the speed of a text but nevertheless carried the soul of the sender. All they know is what e-mail has become: responding to all mass messages, shipping notifications, funding requests, system-wide reminders, and of course , spam. Email is now just a way to be available to anyone, and any robot, with an Internet connection.
What will work and life look like after the pandemic?
It’s true that the real problem is other notifications, all more urgent than anything that arrives in an inbox. Our phones constantly vibrate with alerts that make us feel bad in a dozen different ways. The planet is on fire. Nuclear war may be imminent. A calamity that happened to someone we don’t know feels personal because it happens in real time. All day, tragedy after distant tragedy manages to break our hearts. The whole world is there, buzzing in our pockets.
Of all the online depressants available, email is the easiest to ignore, but digital natives have never paid attention to it. For them, email is not boring. It simply does not exist.
Is it any wonder that minimalist tech is making a comeback among people too young to remember when minimalist tech was all we had? It doesn’t take a sociology degree to guess why the #flipphone hashtag on TikTok has over 346 million views or why Gen Z artist Lorde disabled the browser on his phone and started reading Annie Dillard.
There are ways to break the tyranny of the inbox, as Cal Newport, author of “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload,” calls it. People who email researcher Therí A. Pickens receive a thoughtful auto-reply that she’s writing a book and has limited time for additional projects. “If you receive a silence in response to your request, please also know that this is also a kind of speech,” Dr Pickens’ message read.
I figure ignoring emails isn’t an option for me, but the truth is that I do indeed ignore the vast majority of messages I receive anyway, not because they haven’t important but because I just don’t have time to respond. Feeling bad for not responding has become the only response I can handle.
I once told a friend of mine, a retired Episcopal priest, that I still had unanswered emails in my inbox from 2016, and he immediately closed his eyes, nodded the cross in the air and began to mumble. “Do you absolve me of the sin of unanswered emails?” I asked. He smiled, nodded, and continued to pray.