Professor Beth Kollo has an interesting idea about our email dominated culture, in a post called Recreating Email. What if we changed a basic rule about how it works to give us back more control? Why do we assume it has to work the way it has? She offers:
…email isn’t an ‘it.’ It’s a technological system, built by people, and it can be changed! It can! It can have different kinds of functionality. Someone at some point decided email should be able to be formatted like word processors — so now we have bold,italics, etc. So let’s be creative about what’s possible with email — and what we could make impossible if we wanted.
I dig it. Beth believes, as I do, that technology encodes values. A speedometer that goes up to 150 when the speed limit is 60 suggests a value different from the values of the law. Just as a 140 character text limit suggests values about what can or should be said. So there are dangerous assumptions are encoded in the design of email, and we might need a redesign to fix them.
Here’s her specific proposal for fixing email:
Here’s how it works: Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.
So email only gets delivered during work hours. But let’s say I have a couple close colleagues with whom I collaborate, and I want to be able to reach them at any time. In order to do that, I have to ask their permission, a kind of friend request. And they have to agree. It’s a two-way handshake, like a pgp key. And it expires quarterly.
Interesting. I like the idea that there are boundaries for email. But I don’t like that the organization is going to set them for everyone. First, maybe some employees are most productive at night (I often am). The defaults here make it hard for them to be effective. Second, putting rules like these in place makes it easy for other rules to follow (length limits? Emails per day?), and I don’t like the idea of my employer dictating to me, or anyone, how to be effective. I suppose if it’s all optional, and these are just defaults that’s one thing, but IT departments tend to be heavy handed with rules and such.
I’d much rather see organizations evaluating me for my performance, but not restricting me to what means I can use to perform. Perhaps they can offer training, or provide tools I can choose to use like Rescue Time that help me get regular feedback on how I can manage my time, and my email usage. It’s embarrassing how little Outlook, gmail and Thunderbird do to teach good email and information overload management tactics (they do almost nothing).
But I do like the spirit of Beth’s point: email has a design. How can we change the design of email, and email applications, to better serve us?