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Computer Science Professors Says We Can Probably Make Email Better For Everyone


A new essay in The New Yorker argues that our grandkids are going to look back at the way we work today in bewilderment. Specifically, they will be mystified by our addiction to email. Cal Newport wrote the piece which describes this moment in workplace history as one where we all frantically check our inboxes every few minutes, exhausted by the deluge of complex and ambiguous messages while applauding ourselves for eliminating the need to speak face-to-face. Yep, guilty as charged.

Well, happily, Cal Newport is also a computer science professor at Georgetown, and he has some thoughts about how we got here and how we might do it better.

Cal Newport, welcome.

CAL NEWPORT: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So we're going to get to the evils of email, but start with the story that opens your essay. We are deep inside CIA headquarters. It's the 1960s. And nestled inside the walls are something like 30 miles of steel tubing. Why? What was it for?

NEWPORT: Communication, and, in particular, communication that is asynchronous, a way for me to send a message to over 150 different stations in the headquarters where it can arrive and be there waiting for the recipient to read it. So they essentially built email, but using pneumatic tubes and fiberglass containers and electromagnetic switches.

KELLY: We're talking about this because, as you mentioned, this was a prime, early example of asynchronous messaging, which I gather basically was about convenience. I can write you when I feel like it, and you can reply when you want.

NEWPORT: Yeah, this was seen as a silver bullet for a really big problem that emerged in the 20th century, which was workspaces that used to just be four or five people; if I needed something, I would just talk to you. But in the 20th century, we saw the arrival of very large offices and very large organizations. And so the problem was, how do we coordinate and collaborate when there's 800, 1,000, 2,000 of us in the same building? And asynchrony was seen as the magic solution.

KELLY: So various systems were tried. We're still trying to figure out the perfect system. But in the meantime, in the late 20th century, email arrives, and it's like the killer app of asynchronous communication.

NEWPORT: Yeah. We assumed this would solve the problem. I mean, the pneumatic tubes or what have you was interesting, but very few organizations could actually afford to build these. But email any organization could have. Everyone could send messages to everyone else when they wanted, instantaneously, have them be read when the recipient was ready. This was seen as the thing that was going to solve the problem of collaboration in big organizations, which is why it spread incredibly rapidly into essentially every corner of knowledge work.

KELLY: Sounds so promising and delightful, except (laughter), as anyone who's ever had an email account knows, email is great for many things, but collaboration ain't one of them.

NEWPORT: Yeah, unintended consequences. So it turned out that during this same period where people in the world of business thought asynchrony was going to solve all these problems, there was mathematicians in my field that were studying asynchrony in computer networks and finding, uh-oh, when you get rid of real-time back-and-forth conversation, suddenly it becomes much harder to collaborate. It's much more subtle. It requires much more messages.

KELLY: And it just takes longer - that experience we've all had of sending two dozen messages back-and-forth when you could've just picked up your phone or leaned out of your cubicle and hollered at your workmate.

NEWPORT: Yeah, that's right. We thought that we could take the five-minute conversation and replace it with one quick email message, but the reality is that five-minute conversation required 15 back-and-forth email messages throughout the day. So we soon found ourselves overwhelmed by the massive increase in messages.

KELLY: What does that mean for those of us who are sitting here twitching to check our email? In practical terms, how should we be communicating?

NEWPORT: Well, what we know is that humans are much better at back-and-forth in real time - so on the phone, sitting together in the same room, on video chat - where you can actually go back-and-forth, where I say something and I know that you hear it right away and you can respond right away. We can look at our body language. We can look at our cues. We can look at how our voices change in volume and modulation. This is an incredibly efficient way for human beings to coordinate and collaborate.

KELLY: So what is the solution - we stop checking email so much and pick up our phone more?

NEWPORT: Well, what I found is that going back to synchrony successfully in the world of business requires structure. So if you just say, get on the phone more, use less email, that's probably not going to work. But if you have systems in place - this is how we collaborate. This is - we have these meetings at these times. Here's how we've set up these meetings so that they don't become long and full of bloviation. This type of structured synchrony is starting to have a comeback in the world of business, and people are finding that they're getting by with much less messaging.

KELLY: You also write about the old-fashioned notion of office hours. I'm available at this time. I can talk to you face-to-face. If you can't come during my office hours, too bad. (Laughter) You have to solve your problem or answer your query another way.

NEWPORT: Yeah, I'm a professor, so I'm used to office hours, but we're seeing this more in commercial industry as well. The company Basecamp does this. You can sign up for various experts' office hours online, and then you show up and talk to them face-to-face with their problem.

It's a little inconvenient if you have to wait a while until their next office hours. But as their CEO says, inconvenience is not really our issue. What we're trying to do is get things done. And so we can put up with a little bit of inconvenience if it means we're freeing people from this constant distracting, fragmented communication.

KELLY: What happened to the CIA tubes, by the way?

NEWPORT: They expanded the headquarters. And so as they were expanding the headquarters, doubling their size, they felt like this would be a little bit old-fashioned to be building new tubes into the new side of the headquarters. And at the same time, email was just arriving on the scene. And so email was, in some sense, the death of the tubes in the CIA, and probably also the death of some of their productivity.

KELLY: Cal Newport - he's professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of The New Yorker piece "Was E-mail A Mistake?"

Cal Newport, thanks.

NEWPORT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.