The average knowledge worker spends a third of their day answering email. “If I don’t spend a minimum of three hours a day answering email, it is impossible to keep up,” says Wharton professor and author Adam Grant.
This is more than just a modern nuisance. It’s one of the great social tragedies of the twenty-first century, a cataclysm two decades in the making that, when seen in true light, is so terrifying and oppressive that I can only describe it as…email-mageddon.
PWC, circa 1986
Terrifying? Oppressive? That’s exaggeration.
Maybe. But only a bit. To see the impact of email-mageddon, we have to go back thirty years and see how communication used to look.
For those of you old enough, think back to 1986. For the rest of you, you’ll have to imagine a world without internet, without cell phones (except a sprinkle of execs with phones as big as bricks), a world where Ronald Reagan is serving his second term as president of America, and here’s the most important point, a world where personal written communication hardly exists.
Of course, we lived in a world of communication. But not much in the way of personal written communication, which I’ll shorten to PWC. We got junk mail. But that wasn’t personal. There was no obligation to reply to whoever sent it. We had phones in our homes and offices. But that’s verbal communication. We talked. We didn’t write.
United States post office surveys from back in 1986 report that the average adult wrote and received one personal letter by mail every other week. People sometimes wrote letters to each other at work, but it was mostly writing reports. I remember working at Burlington Northern Railroad in the late 80s as a draftsman, and in my years there I never wrote one piece of PWC. I drew lines on blueprints, that’s all.
It makes sense that PWC was rare back then. It was hard to create. To feel how hard, let’s do a one-minute thought experiment…
Imagine we’re at work and remember we need to write a letter. We grab a pen, get up from our chair, and walk down the hall.
We’re looking for a piece of copy paper.
Ahh, there’s a piece.
Pen and paper in hand, we walk to a conference room on the far side of the office complex for space to think. We go inside and close the door. There’s nothing in here but a table, chairs, the paper, and the pen.
We start hand-writing. We’re here in the silence because pen doesn’t erase. We write a line. Then think about it. Then write another line. Then think about it. There’s a slight cramp in our hand. These are muscles we don’t normally use.
Twenty minutes later, the two sides of the paper are full of inky lines. We pick it up and hold it in the light. It looks complete. We sign it.
Then we get up and go back to where we found the copy paper. After a minute rifling through drawers, we’ve found an envelope. We fold up the letter and put it inside.
Then we realize we can’t hand-deliver this. It has to be mailed. We don’t remember the address for our friend, so we go back to our desk and look through a file drawer where we’d seen her address, but can’t locate it. After a couple minutes, we find it. We slowly hand-write the address with our cramped hand in pen, then write our address as well.
Now we need a stamp. None are around. We’re not sure who even sells stamps anymore. But we remember there’s a little variety store across from the office, so we walk to the elevator, go down, and walk over to the store. The clerk tells us he doesn’t sell single stamps. We’ll have to buy a book of them – for five bucks.
So we buy a book of stamps, knowing we’ll probably never use the remaining nineteen in the book. We peel one stamp off and put it on the envelope.
Then there’s the question of the nearest postal box. The office might have one, but we’ve never used it, so we’re not sure where to go or what to do. So we ask the clerk, “Where can I mail this?”
“Two blocks down,” he points.
Envelope in hand, we start walking. A few minutes later we see the blue post office box, open the metal door, and place the envelope inside.
Then we walk a few minutes back to the office, take the elevator up, and get back to our desk.
It’s been thirty minutes since we first decided to write a letter.
Is it any wonder the people of 1986 only wrote and mailed one letter every other week?
The Price of PWC, Then and Now
The mere act of writing that crappy story irritated me. Stuff shouldn’t take that long. It reminds me of a scene in the animated film Zootopia where a quick-talking fox, played by Jason Bateman, starts up a conversation with a sloth at the DMV. The sloth slowly replies to every word of the conversation, making the two-minute scene excruciating to watch (To feel the pain yourself, click here).
Here’s the key point: PWC used to be slow and expensive.
That made it extremely rare.
But not anymore. Today, PWC rains down on us like fireballs from the heavens, creating a social demand that our friends from 1986 couldn’t even imagine. The only people taking shelter from this firestorm are the Millennials, and they’re getting a lot of flak for it.
I’ll explain that in part 2.