Some Brief Reflections on a Pre-Email Workplace

There’s a really good twenty-five year retrospective on Star Trek: The Next Generation (and, yes, it has been 25 years) by Brian Phillips. I recommend the whole piece, but this part resonated with me (boldface mine):

Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its final episode in 1994, the year before I got my first e-mail address. Watching it again over the last couple of months, I’ve had moments when I didn’t intuitively know whose future I was supposed to be imagining. I mean, series lore suggests that we, the current denizens of Federation Sector 001, Sol System, are going to grow up to become the self-reliant, fencing-class-taking, light-to-casual computer-employers of [the] 24th century. On the other hand, I’ve seen a race of electronically linked humanoids who share information in a vast decentralized net to which they all have access; who see data as a kind of neutral atmosphere, like air; who use technology to share thoughts and impressions at all times; who are never out of contact with one another; and who react to the briefest removal from their shared consciousness with an itchy, frantic eagerness (cf. “Hugh”) to get back. Remind you of anyone? They fly around in giant cubes and occasionally wipe out whole civilizations, like Apple Maps.

I received my first email account in 1991. It has been long enough that I can’t distinctly remember what a workplace pre-email was entirely like. Nonetheless, email wasn’t really used very often for work purposes: in the early to mid-90s, phone calls or face-to-face meetings were far more common. Mail, interoffice, USPS, and express, was the norm, not the oddity. Most people didn’t have a home connection, nor was there the expectation that you would be able to check email away from the office–or, even if you could with dialup, that you would check your email. In fact, the joke at the time was that email largely served as a way for professional parents (i.e., those with office email) to stay in touch with their student or professional offspring. Of course, everything changed, especially once mobile devices were able to receive and send email.

I bring this up because most people are painfully aware of the never-ending nudge of email. You’re probably cc’ed to death and included on far too many emails. Yet in those bad old days somehow work got done, scientific discoveries were made, and so on. Worse, because it’s so effortless, people are far more likely to bother you with problems that, if thought about briefly, would not require an email in the first place. Recently, I was away on vacation and didn’t check my email. There was a spate of emails asking me questions (with the mandatory eleventy gajillion people cc’ed). After no response from me, miraculously, most of the questions somehow resolved themselves. Amazing!

This isn’t to say that the old days were better (in many ways, not just those having to do with information technology, they weren’t). But I do miss, as Phillips notes, the inability of people to pester you, the ability to be disconnected without as many social or professional consequences.

I will now go outside and yell at clouds.

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4 Responses to Some Brief Reflections on a Pre-Email Workplace

  1. jo(e) says:

    One of the things that I hate about email in the workplace is that it allows passive aggressive people to send rude things they would never say in person.

  2. Don says:

    Move to Utah, 2/3s of the state still has no cell coverage of any kind much less 3/4g. Off the grid can be just on the other side of that ridge.

  3. Jim Thomerson says:

    I did not have an email account at the university. Smartest thing I ever did was get the telephone taken out of my lab. I retired in 1997, and think that things at the university were better then than they are now,

  4. Kaleberg says:

    I’ve had an email account since 1973, and, aside from easily filtered spam and a few lists I subscribe to, get maybe a handful of emails a day. The whole point of email, at least back in the 1970s, was that you only read it when you wanted to communicate with people. I gather that there are email programs that will “alert” you when an email comes in, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to turn that on. It fights the whole purpose of email, though I suppose you could just ignore the flag or dismiss the alert. It’s like when a phone rings, you have to choose to answer it. (Caller ID makes this easier.) After all, who is paying the phone bill?

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