A problem manufactured to create solutions
Email is overrated as a problem. But you would never know it from the coverage of tech journalists or the embarrassing, excessive rollouts of email “solutions” like IBM Verse (18 years late to the webmail party), Google Inbox, or the recent Gmail for Android redesign. For middle managers and VP/C-level executives, email is almost all there is. In June 2006, Paul Graham wrote:
“If you ask eminent people what’s wrong with their lives, the first thing they’ll complain about is the lack of time. A friend of mine at Google is fairly high up in the company and went to work for them long before they went public. In other words, he’s now rich enough not to have to work. I asked him if he could still endure the annoyances of having a job, now that he didn’t have to. And he said that there weren’t really any annoyances, except—and he got a wistful look when he said this—that he got so much email.”
The real lesson here is not to be eminent, but the more obvious one is that email is a tax on “productivity.” The latter term has become so overloaded over the past century, to the point that it is now meaningless. To have email is to have problems, and to have problems is, increasingly, to have no time at all. Cue Quinn Norton:
“We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.”
Ok, so the plague of productivity, often borne by the rat of email, is obviously entrenched in U.S. workplace culture. So why did I say email was “overrated,” if it has such depressing consequences?
Because it’s just an amplifier, rather than the source, of the problem. If email didn’t exist, Facebook or Slack or something else would pick up the slack. There would be tons of clients for those services, made by top developers and designers who would have no choice but find a replacement for email. “Solving” these new media would become the topic of numerous Medium posts and Verge articles – and a key indicator that the writer/user was serious and busy.
There’s the problem. Plenty of us have already “solved” email simply by not using it. I get maybe 5 personal account emails, tops, each day, most of them auto-generated or promotional. I understand that this admission disqualifies me from being an Eminent Serious Person, but it also relieves me of a constant “problem” of sorting through stuff that by and large doesn’t matter.
Even at work, where I may get 20 emails a day, 19 of them usually require no action. I could reply to some – i.e., with “Thanks, I’ll keep this in mind” – but a lot of those responses would be political exercises. Email is a lifestyle choice, not an intractable force.
Moreover, I think a lot of people don’t care about email, in the same way that they don’t care about calendars, maps, or Microsoft Office, as Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent tweet. Through the lens of the tech press, you’d think that email was one of the top problems facing humanity today. Through the lenses of my eyes on the subway, I see every phone on Snapchat, Facebook, or a Web browser, not an email client.
So what is email good for?
Email is the price of admission to a certain segment of the culture, meant to exhaust workers and ultimately preserve the status quo. Which is too bad, since it’s a powerful enabler of thought – as long as you’re writing in drafts.
In high school – probably the peak of my email usage, since it was still a novel tool for me back then, plus it had no competition at the time – I wrote a lot of long emails that contained small plays and novellas in them. I have since found this behavior hard to replicate outside the inbox, no matter what writing tool I use.
I think the magic of email draft writing is that it feels important. This feeling is the same reason, I imagine, why so many tech writers and business executives fall over themselves about email – even when it hurts, it feels good to humblebrag about getting hundreds of messages a day and signal the status that comes with that admission. Email is literally going somewhere, after all.
Other writing media have less obvious routes to dissemination. Even a blogging CMS carries with it the implication that the post may never be read in its entirety or at all. Emailing almost guarantees an audience. That’s what makes it good for writing and excellent as an enabler of anyone hungry for attention and imagined prestige.
I was going to lunch today, walking along Lake St. in Chicago to a Jimmy John’s (conveniently next to a Starbucks, where I would get a coffee afterward) and I saw a Facebook ad. No, not one of those “Save 20% on designer shoes” or “Buy Dawg Pound merchandise here” in-stream shills, but a real, physical banner on a bus stop. It looked like this:
Kinda creepy. It was for Facebook Messenger, the app that was recently split off from Facebook proper on mobile (though you can still use all the features of Facebook together in the convenient mobile Web app) and that now has 500 million users. There’s not much Facebook branding here, really, which I think is intentional. Messenger is meant to be something as basic and habitual as text messaging or IM clients were just a few years ago. Facebook’s enormous databases – your friends, your profile, your history – are just the back-end, the magic behind the scenes.
I thought about calling this post “Facebook-as-a-service” (you can see it in the slug still) in a cheeky way, since the “as-a-service” moniker is most often applied to resources like servers and software that are delivered to customers on-demand, without the need to install anything. Messenger seems like just another app – a LINE or WhatsApp clone – but it’s being marketed as a way to do Facebook without really being “on Facebook,” i.e., scrolling through News Feed chaos. In that way, it resembles infrastructure- and software-as-a-service, which let you get more computing power and packaged applications without dealing with the mess of equipment management or software downloads.
Also, this ad is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen with a Windows Phone rectangle next to the App Store and Google Play equivalents. The sticker centerpiece is strange but overall the ad seems at least as effective as all those in-stream ones I’m missing out on by using AdBlock.
2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me, which I understand makes no sense. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember, at least in bits and chunks? Maybe because 2004 felt like a bridge, some convergence of the analog past and the digital future. It was the year I graduated high school and started college. It was the year Facebook was invented, the peak of Windows dominance, the calm before the Apple-Google-let-me-check-my-phone storm. It was a time when there was still hope that George W. Bush wouldn’t be reelected. It was a moment at which I could feel the changes on horizon while being able to look into the past and realize how far away it would soon feel.
It was also the year that Above & Beyond launched their massively successful radio show/podcast Trance Around the World. The show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album. In 2004, A&B was on fire with songs like “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” (by OceanLab, the combination of A&B + Justine Suissa) that mixed drama and unshakable melodies with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re more popular than ever – the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall) was a live set in a sold out Madison Square Garden.
I’ve been fascinated with issues of EDM criticism and have even compiled my own list of A&B’s best singles. ABGT 100 didn’t seem like a time for critical reflection, but in the relatively quiet spot I found at the back of the floor, there was time to think. I appreciated how strands of Cygnus X were woven into Mat Zo, how Andrew Bayer unfurled one vocal masterpiece after another, and A&B’s integration of “These Shoulders,” perhaps Julie Thompson’s finest moment on Anjunabeats. I also got this great photo which looks kinda like Deadmau5 lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers:
It was all so harsh, yet so gentle. All new, yet so old.
Much of this blog was originally about Android. I wrote numerous guides, longform articles, and lists about how to use Google’s mobile OS. Traffic grew exponentially after I began delving into how to use tools such as UCCW and Dashclock Widget on Nexus devices. After 1.5 years of my Android blogging, though, I tired out – I had plateaued with a Nexus 5 running mostly stock Google apps and a few cross-platform mainstays such as Pocket. I didn’t know what else to write without going into rooting etc., which didn’t interest me.
Earlier this month, I switched to an iPhone 6 Plus after 3+ years on Android. I got my first smartphone in 2011 – an HTC Inspire from AT&T – and then moved on to the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5. The iPhone 5S, with its stunning camera and Touch ID, tempted me to jump the Android ship, but I held out, thinking that Apple would eventually make something bigger. They did, and I switched, realizing that the only thing that had prevented me from going to the iPhone had been screen size.
After three weeks with iOS, here are my three main reactions to switching:
When I was an Android user, I regarded phones and tablets as secondary gaming devices – good for the occasional time-waster on the subway, but not for the “serious” experiences like the ones I got from my 3DS. The big screen iPhones have changed my outlook, not so much because of their GPUs and the Metal API (though both help), but because of battery life. The iPhone 6 Plus easily lasts the whole day even between podcasts, music, Pinterest and sessions of Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Plunder Pirates (and iOS exclusive for now – it went Metal before it went Android). On my Nexus 5, the battery would drop precipitously after just a few minutes of gaming. I couldn’t relax or give into the experience, but now I can. Skullduggery!, Mr. Crab, PvZ2: The app gap between iOS and Android is most pronounced in both the gaming selection and how each platform handles common games.
A world without the Web (browser)
Chrome was a mainstay of the Android experience, but Safari doesn’t hold the same centrality for me on iOS. I usually only end up there if something else sent its way. Native apps are better, and Spotlight Search, linked into DuckDuckGo, has all but eliminated my Googling. FeedWrangler takes care of RSS for the websites I usually check, anyway. The only thing I regularly use Safari for is the mobile Facebook site, since I don’t like how the Facebook iOS app affects battery life. Part of iOS’s strength here is in high-end immersive apps like Tweetbot, Vesper, and various games, which between them run the gamut of content consumption and creation.
The small stuff
Neither the Nexus 4 nor 5 shipped with bundled headphones or a podcast app. Both charged with microUSB, so the cable wasn’t reversible. I had to draw a pattern or enter a code to unlock, without the option to reliably use my fingerprint. These all sound like minor quibbles, but considering how many times a smartphone is looked at each day, they add up.
This week I completed my second short story, a 7,000 word piece called “The Lightning” that I posted to Tumblr, along with some original artwork and photography that loosely correspond to the narrative. It’s the second story I’ve published to the site – I prefer Tumblr for its relative anonymity and informality, as well as its artistic community – and I plan to add at least 3 more over the next several months. Once I get to 5, I’ll think about self-publishing an actual book of them.
The story itself is a reporter’s chronicle of his investigation of a local tall tale, about a man who is repeatedly struck by lightning. I didn’t go into the story with much of a plan – only an idea of “lightning in a bottle” that was cycling through my head like a cliche during a walk back in September.
Stylistically, I drew upon three major sources:
- Will Self’s Umbrella – a multi-consciousness, stream-of-consciousness novel that seamlessly moves between World War 1 and later eras, all the way to 2010.
- The Serial podcast, a massive hit series narrating a reporter’s revisiting of a 1999 crime
- The Counting Crows album “Across a Wire,” which reimagines the band’s early songs with lyrical snippets from other songs, b both their own and others’.
I’m still very much a novice short story writer. My first one was written back in the summer, called “The Loop.” I’m still getting a feel for narrative and characterization – in this one I took the first-person perspective, despite Jonathan Franzen’s recommendations against it, to try and get inside the investigator’s head. I also presented different layers of narrative. The parts in quotes are meant to be newsy/reporter-y, while the unquoted parts are more free-form, going between poetry and free association. The piece started as a someone walking around in the woods thinking about the Union Jack (I began right before the Scottish independence referendum) and ended up with that as just a passing detail.
There are some details about my hometown in here. The Lebanon Enterprise is a real newspaper, just as Proctor Knott Avenue is a real street. The whiskey distilleries, lakes, and forests are all real characteristics of the area in and around Lebanon.
I published it once and then took it down to do some rewrites. With this story, I rediscovered what I had once learned but forgotten (perhaps since I did so with a different medium, the academic paper): trying to substantially revise an old work that you haven’t gone back to in a while is painful. I probably let 1.5 weeks slip between the first draft and doing substantial edits, which ended being harder than facing down a blank page had been. I’m not going to put off the edit cycle again.
I used iA Writer for Mac to write the whole thing in Markdown. I took the photos with an iPhone 6 Plus. The artwork was done with acrylic paint on a sketchpad.
For the next short story, I’m going to read something more straightforward – maybe some Stephen King and Hemingway – and then tailor my style accordingly. I’ve already got a title: “The Chancellor.”