What’s so good about email? Well, it’s quick and easy for you to write an email, you can copy in lots of people, it’s immediate and it’s free.
And the worst thing about email? Well, it’s very quick and easy for other people to send you an email, or to copy you in on an email, and their bloody senseless email arrives immediately. And for bloody free.
This is one problem. Almost all the advantages of email accrue to the sender. The effort, obligation and responsibility all fall to the recipient. In that sense email creates what economists call ‘negative externalities’, rather like industrial pollution or aircraft noise.
In several respects email is worse than conventional paper mail. Letters come in a batch, once a day. They don’t follow you around the world while you are on holiday.
But there is another, less obvious virtue to postal mail. From the outside alone, at a single glance, it is easy to sift and categorise each item. Is the envelope brown or white? Is the address handwritten? Does it have a stamp? First class, second class or bulk? Is it a postcard or a screed? Is it a magazine, catalogue or newsletter? It’s usually obvious.
With a cursory scan, I can categorise the contents of my letterbox. Bills go in a disused toastrack, where I batch-process them in a burst once every ten days or so. Invitations go on a shelf, as do postcards. Catalogues or advertising mail go to the bin or to the loo, where I can read them later. Magazines go next to the sofa.
Each item can thus be read at a time (and in a mood and posture) appropriate to its contents. For bills I sit at the table with a pen and a chequebook; for magazines I sprawl on the sofa in the posture of the 12th man in an Edwardian cricket photograph. You can’t do this with your inbox. Instead you have to keep jumping between different modes, like a game of Simon Says: concentrate/relax/check calendar/open bank website/delete/write reply/open bank website again/save to read later.
It’s like the airport experience. Check in. Show passport, get boarding card. Go to security. Show boarding card and passport. Remove laptop from small bag. Spill underpants from large bag while retrieving minuscule tube of toothpaste. Go to lounge. Show boarding card again. Relax. Leave lounge. Go shopping. Buy Daily Telegraph. Asked to show boarding card again. (why does WHSmith need to know my flight number?) Go to gate. Show passport and boarding card. Relax. Go from gate to plane. This time just show boarding card. Phew.
If the bad experiences and the good experiences of an airport were amalgamated, it would be fine. It’s the Chinese water torture element that’s the problem. Paying ten bills in a row is not ten times as irritating as paying one bill every day for ten days.
What could be done to solve this email issue? For one thing, the people who invented the medium failed to impose on the sender any obligation to pre-classify an email before it is sent (you can mark emails ‘High Priority’ but for some reason the only people who do this are mad). We need something to help people separate light entertainment — the equivalent of the postcard — from a summons from the Leveson inquiry.
If emails could be pre-defined thematically, the gains to efficiency and happiness would be immense. There is already a working model for this – Twitter’s brilliant hashtag invention. All we need next is for Debrett’s to draw up a list of 20 classifications, and a ruthless policy on the part of recipients that all untagged mail goes to the bottom of the pile.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012