The dangers of the e-mail tsunami

Shashi Tharoor has opted out, saying that the convenience of technology has become a burden

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 5:03am

Half a century before the invention of e-mail, T. S. Eliot asked, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" If he were alive today, contemplating an inbox on a flickering computer screen, he might well have added, "Where is the information that has been lost in trivia?"

It is one of the paradoxes of our times that inventions meant to make our lives easier end up slowing us down. When e-mail first entered my life, I was thrilled; instead of letters piling up for months as I struggled to find the time to reply, faxes not going through, and telegrams that cost an arm and a leg, I now had a cost-free means of communicating instantaneously and efficiently. I became an avid and diligent e-mailer.

And how I regret it.

I get over 300 e-mails a day, sometimes twice that. Some are urgent (but not necessarily important) work-related questions. Some are from friends; many are from job-seekers, favour-demanders and petitioners. Some are one-line queries; others are lengthy documents requiring perusal and comment. Many are unsolicited junk mail.

Because they are on the screen, I feel obliged to go through them all, if only to make sure I do not need to read them. And this is a chore that takes more and more of my time - up to three hours. A convenience has become a burden.

When I am at my computer, I find myself neglecting more important matters. E-mails automatically become urgent, because I know that if I do not reply to one immediately, it will soon be swamped by 200 others.

The result is "information fatigue" - a sense of exhaustion, coupled with persistent anxiety about coping with the sheer volume of material to be digested, compounded by an ever-shortening attention span in the face of the ceaseless barrage. Like Eliot, I felt that I understood more when I knew less, and knew more when I had less information to process.

This is a global problem - an estimated 294 billion e-mails were sent daily in 2010, and the figure continues to increase. As technology advances, it has become more and more difficult to escape it.

Addiction to e-mail is being recognised as a malady. Part of the problem is that we allow ourselves to be persuaded that new inventions will make our lives more convenient, rather than add to our burdens.

Thus, the unmanageable tsunami of e-mail threatens to drown the world in information.

I have finally given up trying to cope. I have decommissioned my e-mail account and set up an auto response that gives 10 other options to reach people who can help. So far, e-mails continue to flood in. But it has helped me: I no longer feel obliged to reply.

Shashi Tharoor is India's minister of state for human resource development. Copyright: Project Syndicate