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The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox [Hardcover]

John Freeman

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Book Description

Oct. 20 2009
The award-winning president of the National Book Critics Circle examines the astonishing growth of email—and how it is changing our lives, not always for the better.

John  Freeman  is  one  of  America’s  pre-eminent  literary critics; now in this, his first book, he presents an elegant and erudite investigation into a technology that has revolutionized the way we work, communicate, and even think.

There’s no question that email is an explosive phenomenon. The first email, developed for military use, was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion users. The average corporate employee now receives upwards of 130 emails per day; by 2009 that number is expected to reach nearly 200. And the flood of messages is ceaseless: for increasing numbers of people, email means work now occupies home time as well as office hours.

Drawing extensively on the research of linguists, behavioral scientists, cultural critics, and philosophers, Freeman examines the way email is taking a mounting toll on a variety of behavior, reducing time for leisure and contemplation, despoiling subtlety and expression in language, and separating us from each other in the unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox. He enters a plea for communication which is slower, more nuanced, and, above all, more sociable.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1 edition (Oct. 20 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416576738
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416576730
  • Product Dimensions: 22.3 x 16.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 340 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #516,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"[Freeman] brings the reader a fresh, intelligent look at email's infiltration into and influence over every aspect of 21st century life. . . . The Tyranny of E-mail serves as an engaging reality check."--The Daily Beast

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    Customer Reviews

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    Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
    29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars "We need to slow down." Nov. 8 2009
    By E. Bukowsky - Published on
    John Freeman's "The Tyranny of E-Mail" is a wakeup call that may be too late. In 2007 alone, "thirty-five trillion messages shot back and forth between the world's 1 billion PCs." Email is omnipresent. "We check it on the subway, we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up." "Electronic erosion" is the replacement of tangible mail with email. Increasingly, customers pay their bills, shop, and even reveal their most intimate secrets online. So what's the problem? Isn't the convenience of instant communication and the ability to network, purchase goods, and even work from home a wonderful offshoot of our technological revolution?

    Freeman would argue that we are paying a big price, perhaps without realizing it, for these conveniences. Instead of freeing us up to smell the roses, electronic gadgetry is taking up more of our waking and sleeping hours. (Many people get up in the middle of the night to check their emails.) Since we have become a wired nation, people get together less frequently to have a leisurely chat. We are expected to multitask at work to such an extent that we often lose control of our time and become less proficient at thinking out complex problems. The author puts his ideas in historical context, explaining how the invention of the printing press, postal service, typewriter, and the telegraph, among other marvels, revolutionized our lives.

    Email, as the author points out, is far from the only culprit. Time spent surfing the net, texting, blogging, twittering, looking at YouTube, playing video games, and talking on cell phones is time that can probably be better spent thinking or relaxing. Our attention spans have decreased precipitously, we are too much in a hurry to pay attention to our friends and families, and we are surrendering a great deal of what makes us uniquely human: the ability to enjoy each moment, to concentrate on a task, develop relationships gradually, and really listen to what others are saying. In many ways, we no longer "conduct our lives mindfully, with ... deliberation and consideration." Instant communication leads to "disinhibition: impulse unleashed." When we cannot see the person with whom we're communicating, we're less likely to be thoughtful, tactful, and measured in what we say.

    Electronic devices can be addictive and deadening. One CEO says, "I'm tethered to my laptop as if were an oxygen machine I must cart around to keep me breathing." In addition, the electronic invasion has robbed us of privacy, opened us up to an increasing risk of identity theft and other cybercrimes, and made us prey to retailers trying to get our attention so that they can sell us an even greater number of goods. Freeman is no Luddite who expects us to turn back the clock. However, in this well-researched, intelligently written, and thought-provoking book, he suggests that we make a concerted effort to slow down, use our gadgetry more sparingly, and spend a greater portion of our days enjoying nature, getting together with friends and neighbors, reading a book (perhaps even one made out of paper), or writing a letter and sending it via snail mail. As Freeman states so eloquently, our growing dependency on electronic communication "is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly 'on' causes emotional and physical burnout, workplace meltdowns, and unhappiness." It may be time to "push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them."
    24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars How we got where we are, and why we should be concerned Nov. 3 2009
    By Bluestalking Reader - Published on
    Usually when I use the word "riveted" I'm referring to a work of fiction. To be honest, I find a lot of nonfiction a bit of a slog, maybe because I do a lot of picking up and putting down, losing my place and forgetting what I've already read.

    Not so with Freeman's book.

    As an "almost" librarian, I'm very worried about both information overload and how truly important information will be weeded from the junk that's out there. So anything written on this subject already has the advantage with me.

    Another part of me, that concerned with sociology and the future of our human evolution, worries what our increasingly shortened attention spans will eventually change the circuitry of our brains, and to what extent. Already it's said many people don't have the patience to sit and read a book anymore. And if they do, many choose e-Books over real glue and paper books. You can probably guess what that does to my librarian heart.

    What I admire and find so engrossing about Freeman's book is not just that he highlights internet use and our increasing addiction to technology, but also that he goes back through history, explaining different eras of progress and how those times seemed so advanced at the time. Of course, what we have now trumps that by about a million %.

    It's hard for me to imagine a day when what we have now is "old technology." I realize things change. I know technology that's big today will be obsolete next month. Maybe even next week. And, I know addiction to all things internet-related is a big, big problem.

    At the same time, I'll admit I am not immune. I write blogs. I turn to the internet for book news and reviews. I communicate via Facebook and Twitter. And email... I have thousands upon thousands of emails, more than I can ever read. Yet, deleting them without reading them is tough, sometimes. Other times it's a no-brainer, but I'm afraid I'll miss something if I don't get to the several hundred that "seem" important.

    I see myself in Freeman's book. Yet, I also share his worries. I'm not as addicted as many. I don't own a Blackberry. I have no other instant connection to the internet, save a laptop I don't carry around with me. But I spend a significant amount of time online. At the same time, on vacations I usually don't miss my connection to the world. Sometimes, but not usually. I've actually gone as long as two weeks with no internet! GASP! And I'm still alive.

    Has the internet had a negative impact on humanity? Yes. Has it also had a positive impact? Again, yes. Like so many things in life, it's a matter of balance. The problem is, it's so easy to become addicted.

    The internet brings the world to your fingertips. I admit I've asked, "How did we do this before the internet?" Too many times to count. It also allows one to meet people from all over the world, to get a global perspective on issues, and to understand much more about our similarities to others 'round the globe. That's most definitely a positive. I would never have met so many people if not for the internet. I've used it to discuss obscure books no one in "real" life cares to talk to me about. I've made close friendships, meeting a few people I've chatted with online. And, in all cases, they've been exactly as I imagined them from having exchanged messages online for years.

    But what Freeman reminds us is the internet is a double-edged sword, capable of doing much good, but also much damage. It's here to stay. There's no doubt of it. But we need to take a serious look at its effects on our brains, our social lives, and our society as a whole. We cannot let it make us curl up into our own cocoons, eschewing human contact for virtual. We cannot let it compromise our humanity.

    And he does this eloquently, in a way that's balanced and also injected with the occasional humor. I recommend this book to everyone who uses the internet, which is pretty much all of us, right? If you're reading this... Well, you know.

    This book will make you think. If you're the type to keep your Blackberry under your pillow, you may ask yourself why. I know I do... Anyway, I give this book my highest personal recommendation, and I'm not a nonfiction reader in general. Give it a try. You just may find yourself in it, too.
    8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars My computer: friend or foe Jan. 27 2010
    By Bookphile - Published on
    I found The Tyranny of E-mail to be an extremely thought-provoking book. It's very detailed and well-researched and the history it provides of "snail mail" and the telegraph is very interesting. Even though I grew up before the Internet exploded, reading it showed me that I've sort of forgotten what the world was like before you could communicate with someone halfway around the globe in a matter of seconds. Naturally, this made me think of how profoundly different our means of communication are from what they were in the past. In a relatively short amount of time, we have gone from living in ignorance due to a lack of means of communication to being constantly bombarded and inundated with news, blogs posts, and Facebook comments from friends.

    What was really alarming about this book was how much of myself I could see in it. When I started college, having your own computer was something of a novelty, and my dorm mates would often stop by my room because I was one of the few people to have their own computer. It was very novel that they could Telnet into their text-based e-mail accounts from my PC. I can still remember the first few times I accessed the Internet via Mosaic. Because the Internet was still pretty primitive, we had to do things the old-fashioned way: make telephone calls, go to the library to do research for the papers we had to write, etc. Freeman really helped me realize how much I take those days for granted. Now, I'm so used to booting up my PC first thing in the morning to check my e-mail and to find out what my friends are eating for breakfast via my Facebook feed, that I've forgotten what it feels like to be disconnected. I sometimes am one of the people Freeman writes about, the type who click "send/receive" (though, in my case, it's usually the "home" tab on Facebook), hoping that maybe, just maybe, there will be something new there. Sure, I've been aware that I'm doing it, but reading this book helped me to really analyze how unhealthy this is. Am I so dependent on the machine for entertainment that I'll sit there and click, click, click with my mouse rather than getting out of my chair and finding something more constructive to do?

    His argument about e-mail at work decreasing our productivity is quite persuasive. When I was teaching, I sometimes wouldn't get to my e-mail until partway through the day, and then I'd be in a panic because I knew I'd have this huge backlog of messages. There were times when I would be sifting through the pile that I would become angry and frustrated, feeling as though I was wasting time fiddling with e-mail when I should have been planning lessons or grading papers. When I worked in the corporate world, I felt much the same way. There were days when I'd get 100 or more e-mails, which meant I spent the bulk of my day firing off replies rather than doing any actual work. I agree that e-mail merely creates the illusion that we're getting more done, while all the while it can be nothing more than a bottomless time sink.

    Yes, I do think that Freeman is being something of an alarmist here, but I don't think he's without reason. Is all of this connectedness really that good for us as people and as a society? I remember when I got a pager at my old job and I realized that it meant my workday was never really going to end. That's nothing compared to the new extreme of the Blackberry. At first, it struck me as convenient to be able to check my work e-mail at home, but I came to the awareness that I had to resist the urge to do so because it blurred the lines for me too much. I really don't see how anyone can make the argument that it's at all healthy to live in a society that not only enables people to work twenty-four hours a day, it actually encourages them--and, in some cases, forces them--to do so. I think Freeman is justified in pointing out that we might all want to take stock and figure out just what--if anything--we are truly gaining from all of this technology.
    11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars a non-original rehash of everyone else's thoughts on the matter Dec 15 2009
    By A. Chong - Published on
    I picked this up at the library based on the title.

    While I agree with his premise, the author makes few new points, and the bulk
    of the book is spent on either quoting others, stating simple examples, or
    reciting news stories (none of which are footnoted and some of which might be apocryphal).

    The history of communication is interesting, but much of it passes for what would be
    considered common knowledge, and the depth with which it is treated does little
    to reinforce the central motif in the book.

    In addition, the book wanders a bit, going into topics about technology, spam,
    security, etc, subjects in which the author is clearly a neophyte.

    And lastly, in a book about email, why do the author's political views bleed
    into the pages every few minutes.

    I feel like I just read someone's high school essay that went on far too long.
    2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars Really more an interesting history of slow mail and telegraph Dec 30 2010
    By S. Cesare - Published on
    It is an interesting book about the evolution of slow mail, telegraph and telephone and the changing habits they brought with them. Habits that have been reinforced further with e-mail.
    The moral is simple: return picking up the phone and/or meeting physically people and reduce at the minimum your mail fan-out.

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