The intrusive demand for efficiency and output isn't a byproduct of email, but a central value of the larger culture that's created it.
Is email swallowing your life? In a story for New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior lays out the case that email has grown into a hopeless time-suck that's disrupting everyone's lives. Senior cites a 2012 McKinley study that states the average worker in "the knowledge economy" spends 28 percent of their work time reading and writing emails—a little over 11 hours a week based on a 40-hour work week (remember those?). The Radicati Group claims the average American receives 75 business emails every day and responds to 35 of them, a figure that will only continue to rise in the coming decade.
It's not your email that's swallowing your life, but your boss, and your boss's boss, all of whom form a massive information extraction pump that's becoming inseparable from how we all earn our livings today.
The introduction of laptops, BlackBerrys, iPhones, and iPads has meant this lifeline to work follows us home at night and can keep a person gnawing on office problems at all hours. There is never a time when someone doesn't need something from you, and since computers have abstracted labor into the trifling act of typing at a keyboard, one begins to feel almost guilty for ignoring emails while parked on the sofa or sitting at the bar with an old friend. The ease and constant access of email begins to eat away at all of the reasons people should have for walking away from their job for the day.
This intrusive demand for efficiency and output isn't a byproduct of email, but a central value of the larger culture that's created it. In an economy driven by the repackaging of old things into new forms, email becomes just another catalyst that allows a manager to micromanage while offloading justification to the system itself.
These are the rules, and if you value having a job you'll have to play along with them. There are no alternatives. It's not your email that's swallowing your life, but your boss, and your boss's boss, all of whom form a massive information extraction pump that's becoming inseparable from how we all earn our livings today.
Another report from the World Economic Forum, co-sponsored by Bain Capital, spoke about the emergence of personal data as a new asset class for 21st-century businesses, something that will drive growth and become central to the economies of the developed world.
The report argued that the possibilities of personal data economics will "resemble a living entity and will require new ways of adapting and responding. Most importantly, it will require a new way of thinking about individuals. Indeed, rethinking the central importance of the individual is fundamental to the transformational nature of this opportunity because that will spur solutions and insights."
In that light, it's no coincidence that the affliction of email is most dramatically felt by those lucky laborers in the "knowledge economy." Email is one of the most basic channels for information transmission, and the person attached to the email account is the most basic point of aggregating and interpreting data necessary for driving this new asset market. The extent to which email has come to have a negative effect on our lives is a reflection of the fact that it's used by a host culture whose primary goal is to exploit individuals as endless data banks.
More troubling is the class divide that is emerging alongside this bourgeois agitation about leisure time being disrupted. Regular access to email is itself a loose class signifier, with a PEW poll showing 91 percent of households that earned more than $40,000 a year had access to the Internet compared to 61 percent of households that earned less than $40,000. Likewise, 93 percent of respondents with a college degree had Internet access relative to only 41 percent of those who didn't have a high school diploma.
Complaints about email are accompanied by a bloated foundation of class distinction in which other kinds of complaints—struggling to make rent or being unable to apply for jobs because one's 7-year-old, hand-me-down laptop has finally died and there's no money for a replacement—don't exist. There are other things in our culture that swallow lives, and none of them are so mild and non-threatening as email.
If we view email as a luxury of wealth, then lessening its intrusiveness essentially boils down to finding a way to help the wealthy minimize the negative effects of their own privilege. It's a way of defining problems in an exclusionary way, so that when some new ethics of email might be proposed and implemented, those beleaguered by it will feel justified in resting easy.
It's not us who are being swallowed by emails, but emails that have been used as a way of distinguishing those who possess data of significant value from those who don't. And it turns out having your life swallowed by email is still much more tolerable than living a life where no one ever emails you because they don't think you offer anything of worth.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.