Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Gaming & Technology

Death to the Inbox

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , August 5, 2014Leave a comment

inbox

Image credit: Gideon Tsang

Almost every drawn-out, passive-aggressive argument I’ve ever participated in is archived in my Gmail inbox, tagged ‘work’. With the benefit of hindsight and Gmail’s advanced search, I can track how each emailed misunderstanding led to a gradual escalation of hostility: the misinterpreting of a good-natured suggestion as a piece of biting criticism, the maddeningly slow response to an important query, the self-serving introduction of ‘URGENT!!’ into a subject line, the probably-deliberate-but-purportedly-accidental cc’ing of a colleague (or ten, or a hundred) into some very private/silly/NSFW correspondence.

‘Email is not broken; we are’, writes Joshua Lyman in a typical Lifehacker post, echoing the persistent lifehacking trope that we are invariably the source of our own technological problems. Self-help books and courses once encouraged us to win friends and influence people, but now appear largely dedicated to encouraging us to change our lives and ourselves in a bid to become better email users (adopt ‘Inbox Zero’! Sign the ‘Email Charter’! Reconceptualise your inbox as a to-do list!), if not necessarily better people.

This is all a little strange. While we are all too willing to criticise the underlying design of social networks like Facebook or Twitter, email is so ancient and enigmatic as to feel almost beyond critique. In any case, because the asynchronous messaging protocol powering email is so radically decentralised, there’s no real email infrastructure equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg, no figurehead capable of responding to our public complaints and protestations. For as long as we keep using email, we are simply beholden to its quirks. Recognising we have no power to shape the technology, we have no choice but to turn our criticism back on ourselves: ‘I’m so bad at email’, we tell one another, before muttering something about declaring email bankruptcy or adopting an esoteric new inbox self-disciplining technique.

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Though we’ve elevated email to our primary professional communication medium, media theorists rank it below 2-way radio in terms of media-carrying effectiveness. According to media naturalness researchers, email fares even worse when compared with face-to-face communication, resulting in a marked increase in cognitive effort and ambiguity and a huge decrease in communication fluency.

If all of this is true, though, why is it that the Prophets of Disruption continue to aggressively promote eschewing all non-asynchronous, non-written, non-digital forms of communication as much as possible… in favour of even more email? Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, for example, encourages workplaces to experiment with ‘no-talk Thursdays’ and suggests employees avoid phone calls and meetings as much as possible, instead embracing ‘passive communication’ methods (like email!) that allow respondees to reply at their leisure. Merlin Mann goes further, suggesting officeworkers print out red paper tokens that say ‘I’m done having my time wasted; we’re done here’ to hand to co-workers that dare to actually speak to them in the office instead of choosing to email.

The idea seems to be that email is preferable to other modes of communication because it enables radical flexibility on behalf of the recipient: the freedom to reply to a message at any time, at any length, or not at all. The reality, though, is that this asynchronicity tends to manifest most often as a flaw, rather than as a feature: something that could be resolved in several minutes in person or over the phone can take days or weeks via email, as messages are slowly lobbed back-and-forth, every one bringing the promise of some potential new misunderstanding that might take five or fifteen brand new messages to smooth out.

In the US, the number of telecommuters has grown 79.7% from 2005 to 2012. We are barreling toward a future in which offices don’t exist at all, and the only communication we ever have with our ‘coworkers’ happens in the form of endless streams of insistent emails we feel we need to ‘deal with’. Have we really thought this through? Could this really be what any of us want?

In Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried snarks, ‘Do you think today’s teenagers, raised on Facebook and texting, will be sentimental about the old days of all-hands-on-deck, Monday morning meetings? Ha!’ It’s posed as a rhetorical question, but I’ve got an answer: dear God, I hope so.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

ACO logo




9781847086273

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their picks

Is your to-read pile looking particularly uninspiring at the moment? Or maybe you’ve just finished a novel and aren’t quite sure what to read next. Never fear! The staff from Readings bookshop have your back. Here they share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

anchorpoint_cover-hi-res-2

James Tierney

Unblinkingly Into Harsh Terrain: Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point

The Australian landscape is much traversed in our national imagination, yet rarely entirely comfortably. For the 85 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coast, the continent that lies at our backs that is emptier, hotter, and remains haunted by the circumstance of its possession. Read more »

loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

6314976-3x2-940x627

Rebecca Shaw

Out of Alignment: Religion, politics and priorities

Throughout your (hopefully long) life, you will often be forced to prioritise one thing over another thing.
Because we make these decisions based on what we personally think is important or morally right, the things other people choose to prioritise can be confusing or upsetting to us. I find this happens regularly when bearing witness to what some religious people or religious groups choose to place importance on. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

every-day-2012-005_cmyk

Anwen Crawford

Being Boring: Passing time with the films of Michael Winterbottom

Early in 2013, a feature film slipped quietly into cinemas; a film that had been recorded in short intervals over a five-year period, and which featured four young real-life siblings cast as their own fictional equivalents. The film was Everyday, by English director Michael Winterbottom, and it … Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

2011 Jesse Knish Photography

Katie Williams

Pilgrimage to San Francisco: Power and Privilege at the Game Developers Conference

Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to the Game Developer’s Conference with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. It’s the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

ForceM6609

Jane Howard

Witness and Connection at Melbourne’s Dance Massive

In a city where it feels not a day goes by without an arts festival, or three, happening, Melbourne’s Dance Massive is resolutely unique. Australia’s largest dance festival is by necessity heavily reliant on Melbourne-based companies and shows that will go on to tour independently of the festival. The festival is undeniably of, and for, the dance sector in Melbourne. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »