Cal Newport’s book A World Without Email explores the problems that email has brought upon the world of knowledge and how to counteract them. While the book puts “email” in the title, the bigger problem is what Newports calls the “hyperactive hive-mind”: having your mind bound back and forth between various messages and therefore constantly interrupted. Email exacerbates the hive mind by creating gaps in the conversations (asynchronous communication) and therefore encourages constant checking of email. The constant checking, however, interrupts deep thought and hijacks how the mind actually works (8-9). The plain fact is that people are not good at multitasking and our brains are not designed to have parallel tracks of attention (18). When given over the hive-mind mentality, workers become unproductive.
Besides dropping our productivity, Newport shows that email makes us miserable. Studies have shown that the more people use email, the more miserable they are (38). Why does email make us feel so bad? Because it scrambles are ancient drive to connect. We feel uneasy when we feel we’ve neglected someone, which is exactly the feeling we get when we know there may be email messages waiting for us (43). Email is also really hard to use properly. It is very easy to miscommunicate on email and thus produce bad feelings (61). Moreover, email creates more work. A message can just drop work onto your plate. It leads “to a state of perpetual overload that’s driving us toward despair” (56). Email, then, does a good job of making us miserable but not a very good job at actually getting work done.
Email is also a problem because we didn’t fully realize the implications of its release upon the world of work. People thought that less friction in communicating could solve every problem (79-82). But it hasn’t. It fact, email often creates more problems than it solves. Email has also created a culture where fast responses are considered normal, forcing workers to respond to messages as quickly as possible. Workers are also caught up in a culture of autonomy where no one really likes telling knowledge workers what to do (89-90). Therefore, we leave it up to the average worker to figure out how to be productive without addressing the cultural and organizational issues that make it difficult to accomplish real, value-producing work (92).
Therefore, email has significant problems. So what can be done about? That’s the question that Newport tackles in the rest of the book.