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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: The inefficiency of email

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

To me this is a silly line of attack. That’s not to suggest there are no possible improvements to Royal Mail services — I can think of several. For instance someone should ask postmen to reverse their round every year, so that it isn’t always the same hapless householders (me, in this case) who receive their post after lunch. When they’ve finished that, they could also question the increasingly surreal placement of letter boxes (it’s now easier to post a letter in a peat-bog nine miles outside Thurso than at Victoria Station), or even adopt that clever Finnish idea where you can pay for postage using your mobile phone. However, as far as the basic service goes, I have no complaints at all. My father and I have sent or received 1,000 books and parcels via Amazon and eBay with a zero rate of loss and a minuscule level of delay.

So those letter-writers seem to be barking up the wrong tree. It is ridiculous to hark back to mid-19th century levels of service. In 1850 post was the single fastest form of communication, other than taking a message in person. After the invention of telegraphy and the telephone (and the fax machine — intriguingly there was a kind of fax service, the pantélégraphe, operating between Paris and Lyon in 1865), mail has sensibly not tried to compete on speed with electrons.


What’s more, to my mind, having simply one delivery of post a day is not a decline in service but an improvement. I recently visited Down House, Darwin’s home for most of his life. There the audio-guide explained how Darwin would receive about five postal deliveries a day. Thereby explaining, I suggest, why the beardie old bugger took 28 years to write On the Origin of Species. No sooner had he got as far as ‘When on board HMS Beagle…’ when a letter arrived from Reader’s Digest suggesting he had won 200 guineas; to be followed 30 minutes later by a new catalogue of ludicrous hats. No wonder he found it hard to concentrate.

This frequency of delivery, you see, explains the disastrous effect email has on human productivity. Rather than being batch-processed as our paper mail is, neatly arriving all at once, the digital stuff floods in incessantly, distracting us at every turn. One expert in human efficiency recommends the best thing any person can do to improve their life is to set their email software (or their BlackBerry) to check for new mail no more frequently than every two hours.

I do have a further solution. It’s a free service called www.followupthen.com and it is like a snooze button for untimely emails. Just forward an email to tomorrow@followupthen.com (or to 6years@followupthen.com) and you will be re-sent the email at a time that suits you, in this case one day (or six years) later. It’s a new service, so I can’t vouch for it entirely, but so far it has been a godsend.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK


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