Could we have a university without e-mail?

I’ve been thinking about this question since reading productivity guru Cal Newport’s provocatively titled book A World Without E-mail. Even asking the question can feel absurd given the centrality which e-mail enjoys in the university. This was clear to me from early in my time as a postgraduate student, even if email was a relatively peripheral part of my own life. There were a couple of days where the university e-mail system broke down and I remember watching the previously well functioning institution collapse into chaos. It was obvious to me from that point that e-mail was central to how the university communicates internally, even if this wasn’t a role which the academics I knew were necessarily comfortable with. As I continued with my postgraduate studies it soon became clear that e-mail was a source of considerable anxiety amongst academic staff. As Ros Gill described it in her chapter on the hidden injuries of the neoliberal university, “Addiction metaphors suffuse academics talk of their relationship to e-mail, even as they report such high levels of anxiety that they feel they have to check e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and in which time away (on sick leave, on holiday) generates fears of what might be lurking in the inbox when they return”. This has been on my mind a lot recently as the simple indulgence of a Friday through Monday holiday during a busy time of term left me with a mountain of e-mail upon my return which it took me over a week to get control of. This is why I’ve been so prone to continually dipping into the flow on my iPhone in spare moments of time.

These little sprints in unoccupied periods can make e-mail manageable as three or four answers messages (as well as lots of deleted ones) at regular intervals throughout the day lead to a totality which is managed, if not necessarily manageable. The problem as so many of us know is that this means that work rushes in to fill the gaps in your day which might otherwise provide occasions for thought, reflection or day dreaming. As the literary theorist Jonathan Crary has described an “incapacitation of daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in intervals of slow or vacant time”. The mundane challenge of managing our communication can deform our relationship to the world, leaving life as an interval to work rather than the other way round. The sad irony is that, as Gil goes on to note, “e-mail is mostly experienced as what stops us getting on with our ‘real’ work”. Not only does work flow into every crack and crevice in the temporal structures of our day, in the process it constraints us from ever getting to even those aspects of work we enjoy, let alone a sphere of our existence reliably insulated from the pressures and expectations of our employment.

This is a sad state of affairs which has, if anything, got much worse in the years since these authors shared their reflections. The institutionalisation of social media within higher education means that many academic staff feel pressure to maintain social media accounts alongside their many other obligations, dutifully sharing regular updates about things they are thrilled to announce. In many cases personal accounts are matched by institutional accounts for courses, programmes, centres, journals and departments. These are rarely recognised in any formal sense even if they are increasingly important as part of a competitive struggle for visibility into which we have been locked by what Richard Seymour calls the Twittering Machine. Furthermore, the pandemic has accelerated the uptake of collaboration platforms like Slack, Discord and Teams which cross institutional boundaries in complex and confusing ways. I’ll consider the role of video conferencing platforms (which is the other core function of Teams) later in this post because the question of how we use asynchronous forms of communication to coordinate synchronous meetings is central to the insight which Newport is offering in this book.

These trends leave an increasing number of academics facing an utterly bewildering communications landscape in which they might be managing multiple e-mail addresses (e.g. one institutional, one personal), multiple social media accounts (e.g. one personal account, a project account and a programme account) and multiple collaboration platforms (e.g. a university Teams, a project Slack and a personal Discord). This picture becomes even more complex when you recognise how Teams is made up of internal groups which can each constitute a busy communications ecosystem in its own right, as well as the ubiquity which messaging platforms like WhatsApp have in many of our lives. It might seem slightly perverse to pick on e-mail against this wider multi platform landscape which we have all entered into in a startlingly brief period of time. In fact I’ve noticed a certain nostalgia for e-mail start to creep in under these conditions, as the buzzing blooming confusion of the multi platform landscape (to steal a phrase from William James) leaves us pining for the simplicity of an overwhelmingly textual and reassuringly sequential form of communication like e-mail. This would be a mistake in the dual sense of it not being possible to put the genie back into the bottle while also being a misdiagnosis of the underlying problem.

I suspect we’re going to see an even more complex multiplatform landscape over the coming years, rather than a decline in complexity. There is a fairly obvious sociological reason for this. Even if digital platforms tend towards winner takes most competition, we’re a long way from this point in the categories of platform under discussion here. The fact there are multiple platforms performing similar functions (Teams/Zoom/WebEx, Teams/Slack/Discord, Blackboard/Moodle/Canvas etc) mean organisations, groups and individuals are forced to choose between them. There are different criteria for choice at each level (from personal preferences of individuals through to procurement processes of universities) but the simple fact of different choices being made means we’re likely to encounter multiple platforms simultaneously as we collaborate across institutional boundaries and concurrently as we move between institutions. This tendency is compounded by the rich professional networks within which most academics find themselves embedded such that they might be a member of a university department, a research centre, a research project and a study group, each of which might feasibly be using a completely different platform for their core operations. The simple ritual of giving talks at seminars (which doesn’t seem to be migrating back to f2f in the same was as conferences) or attending meetings at other institutions compounds this further, as anyone who finds themselves struggling to share screen on a relatively unfamiliar video platform can attest to.

To long for a return to e-mail also misdiagnoses the problem quite egregiously. It fails to recognise the profound limitation of e-mail which, as Newport reminds us, prioritises written abstract communication over the rich array of signals which come with face-to-face interaction. He has an extremely insightful discussion of how we overestimate the ability to correspondents to understand our intentions via written text, with the ambiguity which is constitutive of the medium being pervasively overlooked as people jump to conclusions about what is said and what is meant. The point could be glossed by simply saying that e-mail is terrible for collective sense making because there’s such a deep propensity to ambiguity about what each party to the interaction intends. Yet it is often used for this, in open ended interactions in which misunderstandings spiral out of control, often without those involved in the interaction realising this is taking place, or at least the extent to which it is taking place. Newport’s simple suggestion is that meetings should be the recourse for anything which requires reaching a shared understanding. This is certainly true in my own experience and something which I often need to remind myself, as the idea of yet another meeting can seem a draining prospect. The pandemic has made this worse with the fatigue which comes from endless video calls. Even though we seem to be returning to something like face to face being the norm for academic events, the normalisation of hybrid working means that video calls will remain part of academic life.

This presents us with the dilemma which motivated me to read this book in the first place. In the abstract it is easy to see how there could be a productive relationship between e-mail and meetings. The former enables us to coordinate and follow up on the latter, with asynchronous coordination used to support synchronous collaboration. That at least would be the plan. The reality is that what Newport calls the ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of e-mail rumbles on furiously accelerating by its own logic, alongside a culture of video and f2f meetings which are themselves driven by their own internal dynamics. This a point which I’ll need to spend time articulating in another post but it seems clear to me that each of these spheres of communication is largely driven by its own internal logic, as opposed to the ecosystem Newport seems to be imagining in which we use a range of platforms in complementary ways which reflect the strengths of each and help address the weaknesses of associated media e.g. we move from e-mail to a (quick) video call whenever the conversation turns towards something which involves open ended questions or requires extended sense making of a sort which is difficult to sustain with the rushed textuality of e-mail.

Many of these problems with e-mail arise because, as Newport observes, what is individually rationally for a communicating actor might be collectively terrible when everyone does it. He gives the example of the different divisions of a university, operating in near silos, who have the imperative of distributing information to relevant stakeholders. It makes sense for them to blast out e-mails to mailing lists which distribute them en masse around the institution. The problem is that with every division doing this, in the absence of any meaningful communication, it produces an institutional cacophony which makes it difficult for any one message to be reliably received by all interest parties. The practical recognition that it’s insufficient to simply send out a single message means that many divisions will be repeat the same message multiple times, particularly for mission critical matters. For example I’ve received the same notification three times in the last month from my School’s office about impending financial deadlines. Given the problems generated if people miss this deadline, it’s certainly rational for them to send it out at staggered intervals prior to the deadline itself. However for those obsessive e-mail checkers like myself who noted the deadline the first time, it’s three times the attentional load which is necessary. The same point Newport is making holds at the level of individual behaviour. To send someone a request for information or to delegate a task is the digital equivalent of simply grabbing them there and then because it’s situationally convenient for you to do so.

In this sense there’s a power expressed through which we need to learn to talk about. In pinging off an e-mail about a problem (or more positively an idea or opportunity) I’m removing it from my mental ledger and imposing it on yours. Obviously it could be objected that no one makes you immediately read the e-mail you have received but this is an objection so far from the reality of how most academics use e-mail that it’s effectively a bad faith response. Even if you aren’t immediately cognisant of the e-mail, it’s an addition to the ever spiralling list of things which you need to attend to. The alternative which Newport suggests it to develop a culture in which people keep a record of the issues they want to raise with someone they work with. When it’s time for a routine meeting these can be tackled in order, within an allotted period of time without the porous obligation involved in sending e-mail. This is something I’ve been doing in fortnightly meetings with the colleague who works with me as deputy programme director on the large masters programme I’m leading and I’ve been struck by how well the system works. There are lots of things I’m still asking by e-mail but it certainly reduces the communicative load of a professional relationship in which one of the key dynamics is his ability to answer practical questions I have as someone who is simultaneously new to both the institution and the role within it. These dynamics can be seen most clearly in what Newport memorably describes as the ‘energy minimising e-mail pingpong’ in which scheduling gets dragged out over a whole chain of messages because it’s momentarily rational to bat the problem out of your inbox by passing the moment of choice to the other person.

I’m much more sympathetic to this book than I would have been if I’d read it a few years ago. This is because the multiplatform landscape we now work within post-pandemic so obviously would benefit from what Newport describes as protocols to structure communication. Newport is asking how we might ‘inject friction’ into the ‘unthinking redistribution of responsibility’ which goes on via email? E-mail reduces the costs involved in asking questions or delegating tasks but int he process it encourages ever more of these activities, driven by the ‘cycle of responsiveness’ in which expectations of availability spiral as people are observed to be responding at times of day where they would have formerly been unreachable. Not only do we need to curtail the escalatory logic which is at work here, we need to do it in a way which utilises e-mail to better manage the communicative burden we find in other areas of the multiplatform landscape like video meetings and social media.

This involves challenging what Newport suggests is a tendency to frame knowledge workers as black boxes and instead reflect with a design orientation on how we structure our interaction and work together. His interesting point is that reflection on process for knowledge workers tends to be subordinated into the category of ‘productivity’ (note how I wrote slightly dismissively of him earlier as ‘productivity guru’) rather than process being seen as core to what we do. The transition into a better system is hard to sustain because it’s often immediately convenient to revert back to the ‘hyperactive hive mind’ but I think it’s possible to do if you can act within a group who have a commitment to doing it. There will still be other points where you are unavoidably hooked into the hive mind but a group of people with a shared operating purpose are a natural unit in which to articulate and embed Newport’s protocols of communication.

The horrible paradox of the multiplatform landscape is that the obvious route towards a solution involves the injection of another platform into the existing situation. I often think back to my time with the University of Warwick’s Data Science Lab in which we organise a residential international conference (50 speakers, 300 delegates) with e-mail used solely to communicate with external. The Basecamp platform was indispensable for these purposes and made a difficult undertaking so much easier than it otherwise would have been. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to replicate the same experience in other situations, though we did have some success using Trello within The Sociological Review’s team, possibly because these parallel situations lack the clearly defined objective which is an academic conference. There’s much more to say here and I plan to come back to these notes with a practical intention in order to think about experimental next steps.

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