Email and Food: Essential, but not Status Symbols

It's no secret that I love email; I've devoted most of a 30-year career to email technologies, standards and innovations. And email has treated me very well in return, allowing me to work from home while raising my children, and to live hundreds of miles from the nearest high-tech employer. So generally, I'm more than content to be known as an email expert. But everything has its downside, and for me the worst thing about being an email expert is the endless recurrence of the "death of email" meme.

There has been a slow but steady trickle of pronouncements that email is dead or dying. I've rebutted these many times, so here I'll just say that if you get rid of email you'll inevitably replace it with something that will accumulate most of the features, advantages, and disadvantages of email, and that I'll call the result email.

But a few days ago, I was leaving London just as people were beginning to pour in for the Olympics. At Heathrow, more than half the people I saw were wearing lanyards with the name "Atos" prominently displayed. Atos is a major Olympic sponsor, and its CEO, Thierry Breton, has been one of the most prominent advocates of doing away with email. I found myself wondering whether there was a single person in that throng who didn't use email, even the Atos employees with a rank below CEO. And then it hit me: it all comes down to social standing.

It's well known that being fat used to be a status symbol, because it showed you were rich enough to have more food than you needed. In modern times, as more and more low-status people have grown fat, being slim has become a status symbol, because it shows you have the leisure to exercise and the money to buy healthier but more expensive foods.

So it has gone with email. I can well remember when having email was a status symbol -- it showed that you were up to date, technically sophisticated, even hip. Celebrities got email addresses but admitted they didn't know why. Those days are long gone, since nearly everyone has email. But every example I can think of in which someone has visibly given up email, they are extremely high status individuals with options most of us lack.

Donald Knuth, one of the world's greatest computer scientists, gave up email to kick off the 1990's and hasn't touched it since. He claims, probably correctly, that this allows him to be much more productive in his truly important work. If you want to communicate with him remotely, you can email his secretary, who'll talk to him and perhaps respond. Certainly a CEO like Breton can give up email, because he can have an assistant handle all his messages for him.

Going back further, and even more radically, the writer Wendell Berry famously eschews computers entirely, as he explained in his famous 1987 essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." (The link includes my own published response.) All his writing is done on a manual typerwriter. But he doesn't do it himself -- his wife does it for him.

Giving up email (or computers, or any technology that is nearly ubiquitous) is nearly unthinkable for most of us. But those of us who are in a position to have someone else do the work can easily choose to do so, and it sends a subtle message to the world that we're so important (or have such a devoted wife) that we can have others do the job for us.

It's often said, for example, that you can't get by in most parts of America without a driver's license. But it's never true; if you're rich enough to hire a personal driver, it's a piece of cake. And it may even be true that it's justified by the important work you can do in the back seat, unencumbered by the need to avoid an accident.

Having one or more dedicated assistants would certainly allow me to give up email. For that matter, I wouldn't need to master the technology of indoor plumbing if I had an assistant to draw my bath, wash my hands and flush for me. There are obvious reasons why most people wouldn't go that far, but I've certainly met executives who don't carry a cell phone, because they can just tell an assistant who to call and what to say.

So, the next time a CEO, famous scientist, movie star, or high-ranking politician proclaims the death of email, take that person's identity into account. If they're replacing email with a solution that most people can't afford, that's probably all you need to know. For my part, I'll believe that email is dead when secretaries and salesmen stop using it. I'm not holding my breath.