Email Complexity and the March of Progress

by Nathaniel Borenstein [Published on 22 Dec. 2011 / Last Updated on 22 Dec. 2011]


You don't need to go beyond a high school course in Physics to begin to understand the importance of entropy and complexity in everything from the fate of the cosmos to the smallest, most unimportant-seeming details of daily life. And, speaking of spam, the end of another year seems like as good a moment as any to step back and reflect on the larger picture behind our daily battles with the myriad details of email system administration.

The technical press is fond of publishing the recurring claims made in some quarters about the imminent death of email. These claims are perhaps best understood as wishful thinking, or perhaps a cry for help, by people drowning in complexity, from the system administrator who is keeping his Exchange server running by the skin of his teeth to the casual user whose inbox is continually threatening to take over his life. Getting rid of email is an appealing simplification for nearly anyone these days, even those of us who've worked on email technology for decades.

But a glance at the bigger picture tells us that while the problem of complexity can be "solved" by moving backwards, it comes at the price of being left behind by those more willing to embrace complexity and somehow cope with it. Plenty of animals rejected the complexity of walking on land and breathing air; nowadays, more complex animals like humans tend to eat them. Most animals avoided the back pain and complexity associated with walking upright, having big brains, and living in large social groupings; nowadays, we mostly see them in zoos. A few human societies have rejec

Old Mail Room You don't need to go beyond a high school course in Physics to begin to understand the importance of entropy and complexity in everything from the fate of the cosmos to the smallest, most unimportant-seeming details of daily life. And, speaking of spam, the end of another year seems like as good a moment as any to step back and reflect on the larger picture behind our daily battles with the myriad details of email system administration. The technical press is fond of publishing the recurring claims made in some quarters about the imminent death of email. These claims are perhaps best understood as wishful thinking, or perhaps a cry for help, by people drowning in complexity, from the system administrator who is keeping his Exchange server running by the skin of his teeth to the casual user whose inbox is continually threatening to take over his life. Getting rid of email is an appealing simplification for nearly anyone these days, even those of us who've worked on email technology for decades. But a glance at the bigger picture tells us that while the problem of complexity can be "solved" by moving backwards, it comes at the price of being left behind by those more willing to embrace complexity and somehow cope with it. Plenty of animals rejected the complexity of walking on land and breathing air; nowadays, more complex animals like humans tend to eat them. Most animals avoided the back pain and complexity associated with walking upright, having big brains, and living in large social groupings; nowadays, we mostly see them in zoos. A few human societies have rejected the complexities of modern life in favor of a return to an earlier agrarian ideal; while this can work for small groups, it has also led to the killing fields of Cambodia. In the larger world, a successful adaptation to increased complexity generally involves abstraction and layering. We muddle through our daily lives pretty well despite the chaotic interactions of trillions of cells in our bodies, because we have evolved self-regulating systems that permit us not to think about them consciously. We can drive through the complex freeways of downtown Boston because we can follow a few (usually) clear signs to get to our destination, despite having virtually no understanding of how they fit together overall. Those signs evolved over the last century in response to the growing complexity of our roadways, with piecemeal human ingenuity determining the next steps in simplifying the system for everyone else. It may sound obvious or trivial, but it's a fundamental truth: any system (including human society) that is to succeed in becoming more complex must do so by isolating the emerging higher level from the complexities that directly underpin it. We human beings are pretty solidly on a path of competition-through-ever-more-complexity. You can step off that path by, perhaps, starting a commune, retiring, or going to jail. But a business that faces ever more complex competitors will find it hard to survive without itself becoming more complex. Which brings us to why we all hate email at least a little bit: it has become a major nexus of complexity in human communication. Social media, because they are built in a manner that largely takes email for granted, seem less complex to us right now. (At least, until you start trying to understand Facebook's privacy policies or user interface du jour!) Some of us, like a man drowning in the chaos of a stormy sea, grasp at social media as a simplifying lifeboat that will save us from ever having to deal with email again. But most people who have needed a lifeboat (and survived) go on to swim again some day, or to ride boats, or to drink water. We're living in a confusing time with regard to interpersonal communication. We've largely forgotten how email, when it was first available, seemed itself like a great simplification. Pre-Internet communication was complicated enough for someone to invent pneumatic tubes! The Coen brothers exaggerated, but certainly didn't invent, the complexity of the pre-Internet mail room. Our problem today is not the complexity of email per se, but the fact that we need to find a way to bound and encapsulate its complexity. For example, we need to allow email to be administered by the smallest possible number of people, allowing the rest of the technical team to focus on other things. This is one of the major factors driving the amazing growth of cloud-based email services. For individuals, we need tools and understanding that allow us to limit email to the things it is best at. Weary as I am of the "death of email" meme, I am guardedly optimistic that email mailing lists are somewhat endangered by social media. A business that can figure out how to use social media to eliminate some of its internal mailing lists is likely to get a little bit more productivity. It's actually fairly simple to state: some kinds of mail are good, some are bad. If social media make email obsolete, I will eat my wizard hat. But if social networks allow us to reduce our average email volumes by 50%, or even 10%, I will cheer. I'm as tired of getting hundreds of daily emails as anyone. But I think we have a long way to go to make that possible, and it will require social media and email developers to cooperate, not throw stones at one other. The real question we should be asking is how we can better coordinate these two amazing modern methods of communication. That's a hard, complicated question, but it's one we can attack constructively, and I'm pretty sure there are solutions within our reach.

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