E-mails may be damaging to our health, according to some scientists, contributing to a generalised attention deficit problem.
Return to the write stuff
"There is more to life than increasing its speed." So said Mahatma Ghandi: pre-computers, e-mail, Facebook, instant messaging, mobile phones, BlackBerries and the many other forms of electronic communication that have come to dominate every waking moment of our lives. Having originally viewed our ability to be in constant communication, any time, anywhere, as a boon, some are now baulking at this overly connected existence.
A growing number of writers, psychologists and communications experts are questioning the value of incessant, superficial and often unsatisfying electronic dialogue, and expressing concern at its impact upon our mental and emotional well-being. The latest addition to this backlash is John Freeman's The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, a compelling argument against the proliferation of electronic mail.
Freeman recounts how his relationship with e-mail began as a happy one. "Like most people I initially had a romance with e-mail and was sending a lot of it," he says. "But after five or six years of e-mailing, I realised that it had changed the way I was thinking and existing." As one of America's leading literary critics, Freeman's daily routine revolved around mornings reading in coffee shops and writing reviews at home in the afternoon. But, he recalls, the sheer volume of his e-mail traffic soon dominated all other activities.
"A few years ago it spiralled until I was getting up to 300 messages a day - and, strangely, I had never felt so alone. It felt like a real paradox, because I was connected to more people than I had ever been in my life, yet in the moments when I was off the computer I became acutely aware of my loneliness, in a very uncomfortable way." As the e-mails poured in, Freeman felt on the verge of emotional and physical burnout. "There was one year in particular when I was working for the National Book Critics Circle and my e-mail was just out of control," he says.
"I was staying up late every night trying to answer it all, but never quite managing it, and I thought we had to have some kind of intervention, because there was no way anyone could keep up with this biologically. It seemed shocking to me that no one had written anything critical about where this sprawling messagopolis was going." So Freeman, now editor of the literary magazine Granta, decided to take a stand. And, ironically, the reprieve came while he was writing his anti-e-mail polemic. While researching the book he spent six months in the New York Public Library, altering the daily habits of the last decade.
"As a writer, e-mail is a lifeline - there were people I'd worked with for 10 years I never spoke to or met, but if I sent them an e-mail they'd write back," he says. "So you have to stay perpetually connected. But during those six months I sent a lot less e-mail and the volume steadily diminished." Instead of expecting instant replies to their queries, Freeman's newspaper and magazine contacts had to wait for a response.
Many of us will recognise this sense of urgency, the finger-tapping impatience permeating through cyberspace if our reply doesn't ping back immediately. That's partly because e-mail is just one of an ever-burgeoning number of digital media demanding our attention. Consider this: 1.4 billion people now use e-mail across the globe, sending 247 billion e-mails a day. There are 300 million active users on Facebook, with eight billion minutes spent on Facebook globally each day. And, by the end of this year, it is predicted that there will be 18 million people using Twitter.
According to Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at Sheffield University, it is easy to become addicted to e-mail - that titillating moment when a new message pops into our inbox, before the glum realisation that it is from our accountant, or a notification of $18 million in unclaimed funds in a Nigerian bank account. "In an abstract way, the structure of rewards delivered by e-mail are similar to those delivered by gambling games like slot machines, in that rewards are intermittent and unpredictable," says Stafford.
He explains that, although logically we would expect consistent rewards to most effectively train behaviour, the erratic nature of e-mail keeps us in a constant state of low-level arousal. "Psychologists have discovered that the most effective way to train behaviour is to deliver reward intermittently," says Stafford. "That is exactly what e-mail does, because most of the time when you check your inbox there's nothing very exciting. But every so often there's a piece of good news, or an invite, or someone saying something nice about you, and then it's exciting."
Stafford also makes the point that, in some ways, e-mail is not inherently different from old-world forms of communication. "We've always loved social contact and receiving messages," he says. "People used to be addicted to checking their pigeonholes or the post. And we used to send hundreds of letters, which we don't do now." The difference is in e-mail's immediacy. "When we send a message a little bit of our brain is waiting for a reply. That stops you properly switching to the next task," he says.
This notion was confirmed by researchers from Loughborough University, who found that it took an average of 64 seconds for a person to recover their train of thought after interruption by an e-mail - work ers who check their e-mail every five minutes waste eight-and-a-half hours a week this way. Dr Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specialising in ADHD (attention hyperactivity deficit disorder), believes this constant interruption has created a related disorder, which he coins ADT (attention deficit trait). It is the result of a modern workplace where the constant chatter coming from our computers, phones and other hi-tech devices dilutes our mental powers.
"ADT is a condition induced by modern life," explains Hallowell, "in which you've become so busy attending to all these inputs and outputs that you are increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving." Symptoms of ADT include a sense that you're not working to your full potential, reduced productivity, rushing important tasks and a lack of creativity.
But we've always been distracted at work - is this really a new phenomenon? "It's new because never before have we been so able to overload the brain circuitry," insists Hallowell. "We've been able to overload manual labour, but never before have we routinely overloaded brain labour." Stafford disagrees, however, arguing that the technology itself isn't the problem - the way we interface with digital media needs refining.
"If you let it, of course e-mail can distract you, but you can always choose to turn it off," he says. "I advocate people using technology rather than letting it use them. What we need to do, both collectively and individually, is learn to use technology differently. We haven't quite achieved this yet, but we will." His views are echoed by Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at the American University in Washington DC. In her book, Always On, Baron argues that we are currently "bingeing" on electronic communications like e-mail and texting.
As Freeman discovered, we then become sated and eventually struggle to digest the glut of information. Baron compares the current situation in tech-saturated countries to that of Japan in the 16th century, when the Portuguese first imported guns. "Those guns were seen as a threat to samurai values," she says, "so they were banned and the soldiers went back to swords. "The analogy is that we may feel bound to use new technologies, but there are ways of changing behaviour patterns if one has the will to do so."
Other examples, Baron notes, are our changing attitudes to gas-guzzling cars - once lauded in the US, but now seen as a threat to our very existence. Cigarettes have seen a similar fall from grace. "Who would have thought we would do away with 70 per cent of smoking in the US?" she asks. "Or have buildings that were completely smoke-free? To make such fundamental changes you have to believe there is a problem - if you don't think there's a problem, there's no reason to find a solution."
One of the problems Baron associates with what she calls "teletechnologies" is their impact on the nature of our communication and subsequent quality of our relationships. "Because we are always on, we have become addicted to incessant, bitty, fragmented dialogue, rather than the rich, slow-paced conversations that unfurl when we sit facing another human being," she says. Baron illustrates her argument with the nationwide panic that gripped the US when the BlackBerry system crashed in late 2007. "All kinds of people were twitching, and not because they were expecting an important message. Stockbrokers, physicians and psychiatrists felt bereft without their BlackBerries, many feeling phantom vibrations. They were so needy of being in connection."
Baron gives another example of a teenager who gave up Facebook for Lent. At first, she "thought she would die" without it, but in fact thoroughly enjoyed the experience. She spent time speaking to friends on the phone, or in the flesh, and realised "she didn't need the social validation of always being available to everyone". Of course, no one is suggesting we all pitch our laptops into the sea and train new flocks of carrier pigeons. Digital media, and the many forms of cheap, global communication they have enabled, have transformed the way we live and work. The e-mail-wary are just warning of information overload as we struggle to keep up with the torrent of messages.
Perhaps, like Freeman, we need to rediscover more traditional means of staying in touch. "I think people should e-mail less, and see attention as an ecology worth preserving in small acts like writing a letter or a postcard," he says. "I send a lot more of both these days, which seems like a much richer and more fulfilling way of communicating with others."