Monday, November 18, 2019

is pneumatic post to blame for email?

The digital minimalist Cal Newport starts his New Yorker essay on email, with a description of the pneumatic tube network of C.I.A central headquarters in Langley, Virginia. You can read my previous posts about the C.I.A pneumatic networks here and on the C.I.A webpage. Newport includes some nice details about the system and its closure, including a pin that some staff wore that read "Save the Tubes" (mental note to find that photo! and make the pin?) but his main point is to show how this was an early example of "asynchronous communication":
"The C.I.A.’s tube system is a defining example of one of the major technological movements of the twentieth century: the push to create what communication specialists call “asynchronous messaging” in the workplace.... Asynchronous communication ... doesn’t require the receiver to be present when a message is sent. I can send a message to you whenever I want; you answer it at your leisure."
"As message slips piled up on office desks, what seemed to be missing was a system of practical asynchronous messaging: a way for me to send you a message when it was convenient for me, and for you to read that message when it was convenient for you, all at speeds less sluggish than that of intra-office mail. If such a system could be built, managers thought, then efficient non-real-time collaboration would become possible: no more missed-call slips, no more waiting for the mail cart. In the emerging age of large offices, practical asynchrony seemed like a productivity silver bullet. This belief motivated investment in projects such as the C.I.A.’s pneumatic-tube network."
Of course the C.I.A's system was not an early example of its kind, there were larger, older postal and communication systems across Europe and elsewhere. But Newport does point to an important element that links pneumatic systems and email, which is their asynchronicity, designed to streamline workflow.

In his 1980s film Brazil, Terry Gillam captures perfectly what it feels to have your work streamlined in this way:

Newport writes that "the enthusiastic embrace of asynchronous communication" has created the email monster that many of us have to deal with in our workplaces. He writes that email users check their inbox on average every six minutes. Pneumatic post was also a much more frequent form of postal delivery for its time, with mail deliveries throughout the day. Was this also felt as an intrusion by correspondents?

I remember when email was pure joy - my first email account as an undergraduate university student in the mid 1990s, that I used to contact doctors and researchers in clinics in Mauritius and Canada to organise research and clinical visits. We had a computer laboratory at the university, where we would hang out infrequently, maybe once or twice a week, to send a few emails. As my cohort travelled around the world to our different placements in medical school, we would arrange meet-ups via email. We wrote long letters to each other and back home, rich descriptions of our time away and our observations. When I got back home I printed the emails out and kept them in a box with postcards.

Once working as a doctor I encountered pagers and palm pilots, but only used the computer to write discharge summaries. My phone was for work purposes, not to send messages. And now I find myself in 2019, alongside so many others, hating yet beholden to email. Time away from the thing is punished with more emails. Answers give more questions. Like the main character of Brazil, you stuff one email into the system, only to have five more catapult into your inbox with a thud.

What might happen I wonder, if we turned the vacuum onto itself, as he does in Brazil - what would the digital equivalent of the scene of paper falling from the ceiling tubes in the officeplace look like? Or does this in fact just happen everyday that our computer freezes or the system says "no", and while we wait for the fix, more emails just arrive in the inbox.