E-Mail, E-Mail Everywhere
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
August 1996

1996 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




Anyone who has spent their own term of employment indenture, has "done time," as it were, within the pin-stripe stockades of Corporate America, intuitively understands an enigma that has baffled the leading economists and politicians for years. It's the great Productivity Puzzle, which goes something like this: why, despite significant spending on computer technology, has American worker productivity remained frustratingly stagnant for the last few decades?

Feel free to skip this paragraph if statistics numb you. The rest of you may like to know that "productivity" is defined as the dollar value of output, be it widgets or insurance policies, compared to the number of hours it took to produce. Since the 1970s, productivity growth has increased anemically, only 1% annually, compared to double that rate for most of the preceding decades of this century. (There has been a recent upward blip, but all but the perkiest economists discount this rise as "cyclical.")

Those of you who are sitting at a desk in an office right now and just took your hands off a keyboard long enough to read this column know why productivity has stayed virtually static despite the near ubiquity of computers in the workplace. The answer is on the screen in front of you. It's e-mail.

Despite the advantages of electronic mail (and they are as numerous as Snackwells in Roseanne's cupboard), e-mail may be more bane than boon. We're drowning in the stuff. E-mail has become to the modern American worker what water was to the Sorcerer's Apprentice: the more we read, the more arrives. Who can be more productive when there's all this e-mail to read?

According to Eric Arnum, editor of the newsletter Electronic Mail and Messaging Systems, the worldwide userbase of e-mail systems installed on local-area networks is over 47 million. No one knows how many of those users of cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail and Quickmail and all the rest are in corporations, as opposed to academic institutions, but you can bet the bulk is in business.

Back in the days B.C. (Before Computing), a good, strong door, a single-line telephone and a steadfast secretary made sure all communications remained linear. Visitors and phone calls arrived in modest, manageable numbers. The typical tycoon could serenely focus in on the truly important question facing American business: where to go for martinis at five o'clock.

Thanks to the new mail twins, voice- and e-, anyone suddenly seized by the desire to contact you can do just that. It is not at all inconceivable to return from lunch to find a dozen voicemails and another dozen or more e-mails have arrived while we were out swallowing our sandwiches whole in a desire to get back to our cubicles as quickly as possible.

The American office has become an e-mail factory: the day is done when you've successfully hacked your way through all of your unread e-mail. As more and more companies and workers come online, the quantity of our communications just keeps increasing; there seems to be no light at the end of the carpal tunnel. If productivity were measured in e-mail, our economy would be robust indeed.

The explosive growth in corporate e-mail has spawned the birth of two new species of employees: the Junk E-Mailer and the E-Mail Terrorist.

The Junk E-Mailer sees access to the company e-mail address list as an opportunity to demonstrate their own existence - epistulas transmitto ergo sum; as Descartes might have put it; "I E-Mail, Therefore I Am." The Junk E-Mailer floods the network with the tiniest thought that pops into their head: an available seat in their car pool, the stapler missing from their office, their cousin's neighbor's daughter's Girl Scout cookie drive.

The E-Mail Terrorist views e-mail less as a tool than a jihad. They will pitch an e-mail fit about one of your transgressions -- a missed deadline, a failure to follow procedures -- and will make sure at least a hundred other people are cc:'d so that everyone from your boss to the cleaning staff knows what a muckwad you are.

E-mail often merely replicates a process for which people used to use paper memos, phone calls and faxes. A more effective corporate communications system might be one which does not enable users to send messages to each other at all, but instead lets them contribute data to projects. Using artificial intelligence, projects might rise to the top of the information food chain as deadlines approached; their appearance and arrangement might flourish or fade based on their strategic value to the company.

Although e-mail greatly facilitates intracompany communications, it often simultaneously keeps employees from thinking, managing, and creating, all of which are productive acts which move the company, and America, forward.