The Intellectual Situation
In the early days of the inbox, it afforded the naive human organism a certain pleasure to receive an email. Ah, someone thinking of me . . . So a note or two of companionship whistled through the lonely day. Thanks to email, the residual eloquence of a moribund letter-writing culture received a rejuvenating jolt of immediacy. As late as the late ’90s and early ’00s, during the last days of dial-up, it still felt nice to send and receive the occasional squib, to play an epistolary game of catch with some friends. Sometimes you would even forward a joke, a larky practice that nowadays seems an unconscionable crime.
For it has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account. It’s the old story: the new efficient technology ends up costing far more time than it ever saves, because it breeds new expectations of what a person can possibly do. So commuters in their fast cars spend hours each day in slow traffic, and then at the office they read and send email.
Correct emailing practice does not exist. The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone. So you reject the spontaneous spirit of email; you hold off replying for hours, days, even weeks. By then the initiatory email has gone stale, and your reply is bound to be labored. You compensate for the offense with a needlessly elaborate message. You ask polite questions to which you pray there will never come an answer. Oh, but there will.
Of course you could always reply gruffly, and in lowercase. Moreover, you could refuse to reply at all except where some practical matter was at issue. But Western civilization has always reserved for correspondence its most refined gestures of courtesy, and a memory of the old days persists. Over email, you can be in touch with so very many people—and make each one mad at you. And they are mad at you, your former friends, because no more efficient vehicle for the transmission of rashness and spleen has ever been devised than the email. Nettled by something—often something imaginary, since no one’s tone comes across quite right, over email—you lash out instantaneously. You hit SEND and it’s too late. It’s too late because it’s too soon.
Email is good for one thing only: flirtation. The problem with flirtation has always been that the nervousness you feel in front of the object of your infatuation deprives you of your wittiness. But with email you can spend an hour refining a casual sally. You trade clever notes as weightless, pretty, and tickling as feathers. The email, like the Petrarchan sonnet, is properly a seduction device, and everyone knows that the SUBJECT line should really read PRETEXT.
But one has many correspondents, and few if any lovers. Individually, they’re all decent people; collectively, they form an army marching to invade your isolation and ransack your valuable time. Nietzsche declared that one should set aside an hour a week for reading letters; anything more was toxic. And now we read in the paper where Gloria Steinem is complaining that she spends three hours a day replying to email.
America, most efficient country on earth, is in fact a nightmare economy of squandered time. Our economic system condemns people to work in offices and send email; that’s what they do there. (And in order to cover their asses, they cc everyone about everything.) Then they go home and take with them all the work they were supposed to be doing all day. Their revenge upon those of us who don’t work in offices? To send us email from nine to five.
We too have sometimes been the have-nots in the email economy. In the role of supplicant emailer, we have labored to achieve the impossible right tone: so winning that others will have to write back, so casual you can pretend it doesn’t matter when they don’t. The whole thing is painful all around. And this, finally, is what must be understood: email, which presents itself as a convenience, a breeze, is in fact a stern disciplinary phenomenon. You must not stray too far from your desk. You must be polite, you must write back soon. And yet in order to strike the right note, you must not write when too giddy, angry, tired, or drunk. Always at the disposal of email, never, except guiltily, at the disposal of your moods. . . . It fits our phase of capitalism: the collective attitude is casual, natural-seeming, offhand; the discipline is constant and intense.
One now recalls those early days of sparse email traffic much as the cokehead recollects the first bumps of powder snorted sweetly up his nose. How quickly pleasure turned to compulsion and unhappiness! Nothing was left, in the end, but anxiety (who am I forgetting to reply to?) and guilt (I know who). And yet the compulsive emailer, addict of the insubstantial, is ultimately even worse off than the substance abuser: no clinic for him to check into. Western civilization has become a giant inbox; it will swell and groan but never be empty till it crashes.
Our sole consolation is the prospect of doom. For a while, email, in its efficiency, had seemed to serve very nicely the means of production and their owners. But lately, the business pages report a dialectical reversal whereby the means of communication overwhelm the means of production, so that the class of owners and managers can hardly do or even supervise any work; they can only discuss, over email, the things they should be doing. Sabotage and slowdown—old techniques of worker resistance—have become impossible to distinguish from white-collar office jobs. Yes, it may be that all of us together, tapping out ephemera at our keyboards, will bring down this civilization once and for all. But not before human flesh has turned to spam.
At least, when we finally get there, the New York winter sunshine is the same. You see your breath in the glitter, and people are still out, all bundled up, in Union Square. So not everybody’s sitting home and emailing! There’s still hope for us.
“I’m just looking for somebody to talk to,” says a plaintive, kindly voice, its possessor’s back to us, sitting on the steps.
Boy, so are we. “Hello!”
Our new friend unhappily moves the cell phone from his face, points at it. “I’m, um, talking to my friend?”
“Ah,” we say. “Aha.”
We are a ghost.