There are two sounds that remind me of technology in the 1990s. The screechy noise of a 28.8k modem exchanging hellos with your pay-per-minute ISP and that AOL voice (Siri's mother?) speaking to you on those rare occasions you received an e-mail.
Generally speaking, I feel nostalgic for 1990s technology. In those innocent days I created my first web site - a compendium of emoticons called 'the smiley directory' - but I do value broadband, Twitter and all those other wonderful things the intervening 15 years have brought us.
What do we have left from the nineties, like one of those dirty bourbon hangovers that take two days to clear? E-mail.
I despise email. It's taken over so much of my life. It's all over my computer. Replaced most post. Infected my phone. Pretty much killed the humble telephone call.
All around me in the office, at my clients, when I speak to my friends: all I hear is stress about e-mail. "I have so many unanswered messages" .... "I feel like I've missed something really big" .... "I'm sure there is someone I've not got back to" .... "The best thing about Christmas vacation? No e-mail"
Apps abound to take us to the mythical state of 'inbox zero'. The only time I've reached this tech nirvana was three months ago when I pressed 'archive all' in a bout of frustration, deleting around 1000 unread emails in the process. (Funnily enough, I didn't seem to miss anything by reading none of those.) These apps, such as the wonderful Mailbox, focus more on getting rid of e-mails than reading them. A bit like bug spray, if you think about it. But none of these apps truly help us regain control of our digital lives. They don't get to the crux of the problem, the root of the disease. The e-mails just keep on coming.
I started my first ever 'real' job in 2000 at Arthur Andersen, the now deceased accounting giant. Accessing e-mail required plugging in a telephone cable and syncing Lotus Notes twice a day -- and Andersen were ahead of the pack in many ways. I'd have around 5 or so messages to process each time taking 10 minutes at most. Somehow that seemed to be enough. Ever since then, I've watched as e-mail devoured more and more of my working day.
I could easily spend my entire working day sending, receiving, filing and processing e-mails. All around me in tech, I see people whose jobs are just that. Productivity is disappearing in an industry that is supposed to be the pinnacle of efficiency as people spend 4...5...6 hours a day replying to messages in their neverending inbox.
I'm pleased to say that the tide is starting to turn. Around a year ago, I received this superb auto-response from a journalist I wanted to invite to Decoded:
I was blown away. The concept of a vacation from e-mail sounded like the most wonderful experience. An inbox detox. I've still never met Ms Clancy (after all, she never saw my message) but I was instantly inspired. If I really wanted to reach her I could have used Twitter, called her office, wrote a letter. Her detox didn't turn her into a hermit. But it did, I expect, give her the necessary headspace to actually do her job rather than send e-mails back and forth in which she only talked about doing her job.
I've started to notice this trend more and more -- auto response as a tool to reduce the number of e-mails that an individual needs to process by managing expectations of the sender as to whether and when they can expect a reply.
Another way of getting e-mail out of your life is giving it to someone else to do for you. Richard Branson famously dictates all his e-mails and tweets to his assistant to save time.
Lacking a full time scribe, the closest I've been able to get is disabling push notifications for e-mail on my phone. My sanity levels have soared since. Not having a constantly increasing little red number telling you how many more messages you need to process does wonders for the mind.
My current favourite app for reducing the number of e-mails I have to process is unroll.me. It scans your gmail inbox for e-mails that lie between personal messages and junk mail (e-newsletters, for example). Unroll.me identified no less than 89 e-mail subscriptions that regularly filled my inbox, consolidating them into a single daily e-mail instead.
I remember some great advice I received around 8 years ago from an old school boss when I worked at an advertising agency. Steve once said to me:
"You know the problem with young people nowadays, you all hide behind your computers and never talk to anyone any more"
Steve wasn't making a profound judgement; it was more of a throwaway comment. But it stuck with me. Instead of e-mailing our production department (around a 30 second walk away) I would go speak to them instead. Instead of writing a note with feedback to our creative teams, I'd call and do it by voice. My interpersonal relationships improved immeasurably. It's probably the single best piece of business advice anyone ever gave me.
I can feel the end of e-mail coming. At Decoded we use Slack for internal messaging. It's not a perfect replacement by any means, lacking simple functionality such as sending a message to more than one person or offline messaging. But it sure beats yet another Gmail.
I give e-mail five more years before extinction. The future is bright. The end is nigh.