Last post I described the apocalyptic change in personal written communication over the past thirty years. We went back to 1986 to see how we wrote and received one personal piece of mail every other week, because hand-writing letters was time-consuming and rare.
But now the average knowledge worker spends three hours a day in personal written communication, in email mostly and texts secondarily.
My point is, this is massive social change, so life-altering, so oppressive, that I can only describe it as email-mageddon.
Think about the mental and social burden:
- Requests for personal written communication (PWC) have increased 500x, from once every other week in 1986 to about fifty times a day. Every two weeks, people send us more than five hundred letters by email, expecting a reply, compared with only one letter by snail-mail in yesteryear.
- The requests have gone up 500 times, but the social obligation to reply has stayed the same. When we get PWC from people, we feel obligated to respond. We feel put down when people don’t reply to our texts and emails, and we know others feel the same. It’s like we’re factory workers whose production quota went up 500x, and there are serious consequences if we don’t make quota.
- Yes, our ability to reply to PWC has gotten easier than it was in 1986, because we don’t have to hand-write letters anymore. But the demand more than offsets our ability to supply. Another way of thinking about supply and demand factors is to consider the time we spent in PWC back in 1986 versus now. Today we spend at least fifteen hours a week on PWC. Back then we spent thirty minutes every other week. That’s sixty times greater.
- Then add in the fact that PWC is more mentally taxing than verbal communication, because writing is more difficult than speaking. We talk at 180 words a minute without as much as a thought. We don’t have to edit our words, or try to capture tone or style. We don’t have to think much about etiquette. We just talk back and forth and work out the details as we go. But when we write, we go at about a quarter of that pace. And we craft the words for etiquette and tone and style. That makes the average ten-minute conversation ten times harder to write than talk.
So we’ve experienced a massive increase in demand for our attention, with serious social consequences if we fail to supply it, and yet the amount of attention we can pay has stayed the same.
In fact, the supply of attention has gone down. The proliferation of entertainment media means that we can enjoy ourselves immensely with every second of our attention. We have millions of YouTube videos, thousands of media channels, and hundreds of friends to text and talk to all readily available to satisfy our senses and clog up our bandwidth. So our ability to respond to requests for attention via PWC, and our desire to respond, has decreased substantially in the last 30 years.
So let’s imagine that the demand for our attention to PWC has gone up 60 times and our supply of attention for PWC has been cut to a third of what it was. That translates into a 180-fold difference in the attentional dynamics from 30 years ago.
Is it any wonder we are stressed? Is it any wonder that Millennials hardly ever return emails? I talked to my seventeen-year-old daughter Liz about this. “Liz, how many times do you email in a week?”
“I never email,” she said.
Keeping up with this 180-fold increase is too psychologically expensive, and the Millennials are opting out. But the Boomers and the Gen-xers, with their strong sense of duty and social obligation, are staying on the production line. They’re deep in the PWC factory, trying to keep up quota.
Something has to be done to liberate our culture from Email-mageddon. Part 3 offers some ideas.