Routine Order

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Pulling the plug on email

March 10th, 2007 · 1 Comment

Everybodys talking, but no one says a word – John Lennon

In offices and schools all around the developed world, people talk more online and less offline, and so John Lennon turns out to be a visionary ahead of this time.


I read the quote at this article that describes one editor’s effort to stop using email:Tom Hodgkinson: Why I decided to pull the plug on email | Technology | Guardian Unlimited Technology. While it may be impossible to entirely do away with email, at least for work and professional matters, you don’t have to give email up to send a card, or a letter by regular mail.

Donald Knuth stopped using email before a lot of us knew what it was. Yes, he stopped using email in 1990(!) and after using it for 15 years too, no less! Knuth is famous for his multi-series volume on the art of computer programming and algorithms – arguably one of the greatest computer scientists and educators alive. When I read about his not using email, I thought that he had not been using it for a while, and so, naturally, he did not have as big a problem as someone who wanted to stop using email now would.

I predict that in another 20-25 years, text-based email will be defunct. Replaced by portable communication devices and digital secretaries that filter and prioritize things for you, using advanced intelligent systems concepts, such as natural language processing, data mining and neural networks. You will wear or carry a thing barely larger than a cellphone, to which people will be able to send voice/video. You don’t have to see/hear all of it, only the ones deserving your attention.

Technology has always been only one half of the equation – the other, more unpredictable, half has been sociology and to a smaller extent anthropology. The human race moves in unpredictable ways, adopting some technologies and sticking to them for a long, long time instead of thrusting towards the next stage improvement. Sometimes I think about roads and wonder why we humans have covered such a large percentage of our earth with roads, when, eventually we won’t be using them (already aren’t) for but the shortest journeys. Why not use some technology that does not leave such a huge scar on the planet? Something with a smaller footprint.

But I digress – for now, email is essential, unavoidable.

Image: ldanderson on flickr