In my previous post, I wrote a little bit about how technology encodes values. So now I want to rant about the values encoded in email. Email values the always available. It values immediacy of online-ness. It values bulk addressing and archiving. And I blame it for being the major reason everyone runs around these days saying how busy they are.
But of course email isn’t an ‘it.’ It’s a technological system, built by people, and it can be changed! It can! It can have different kinds of functionality. Someone at some point decided email should be able to be formatted like word processors — so now we have bold, italics, etc. So let’s be creative about what’s possible with email — and what we could make impossible if we wanted.
So here’s my proposal: Some email programs let you write an email and then mark it for later delivery. So you can work away in the middle of the night, but tell your server not to send the message just yet. Maybe you want to think it over, maybe you don’t want people to know you were working at 3 am, maybe you don’t want to set precedent for workplace email being sent over the weekend. But wait!! you say. You mean…the workplace could have different expectations?
Heck yes!!! I say.
But it can’t be a movement of individuals. It needs institutional buy-in.
Here’s how it works: Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.
So email only gets delivered during work hours. But let’s say I have a couple close colleagues with whom I collaborate, and I want to be able to reach them at any time. In order to do that, I have to ask their permission, a kind of friend request. And they have to agree. It’s a two-way handshake, like a pgp key. And it expires quarterly. So just because you give me access to you 24/7, doesn’t mean that will last forever. Every quarter I have to specifically reinvite you and you have to agree. Which means my 24/7 list won’t spiral out of control unless I want it to. If we’re working on a project together and need 24/7 access, when the project is over, I don’t reinvite. Or you don’t accept the invitation. Two-way handshake that expires. Key.
At first there would no doubt be piles of email in everyone’s account at the start of each day. But gradually that will decrease. Just think — all the email that gets generated because of back and forths outside of work hours will gradually ease. And since you know you can only reach people during the workday, people might actually start walking over to someone else’s office/desk. Or picking up the phone. Remember the phone? I loved the phone. So quick and easy to resolve a tricky question over the phone, a little back and forth dialog, you can quickly clarify misunderstandings. Ahh….the phone.
It’s not like we all stay up all night leaving each other voicemails. And yet, we do this without abandon with email. It’s sweet (sort of) that my colleagues are thinking about me at 1 am, but really…it can wait till tomorrow.