Email as an Object-to-think-with
In the beginning
It's 9 am. As my alarm clock blasts music from a local classic rock radio station, I slowly pull myself out of bed. Rubbing my eyes, I sit up and look around my dorm room, trying to remember what day of the week it is. I reach over, grab my glasses from the small table beside my bed, and walk over to my Macintosh computer. I hit the space bar to wake it from its quiet slumber, and its screen quickly comes to life. Placing my hand on the computer's trackball, I gently glide the cursor to the icon of a postal letter, and double-click the trackball's button. A computer window pops up on the monitor, informing me that my Eudora email program is checking a server at the Media Lab for any email that was sent to me since the last time I checked, in most cases the evening before. Almost instantaneously, the speakers attached to my computer emit a chirp, and another window appears, taking the place of the one that was briefly there before. This new window lists the new messages that are waiting patiently for my perusal and reply.
Occasionally I wonder how email-a computational artifact-can have such importance in my life that it has become the first thing I do when I wake up every morning. Certainly its accessibility has something to do with its intrusion into my daily schedule. The fact that I always check my email as soon as I log onto a computer points to this. But there must be more to email that makes it such an integral part of my life-some compelling feature that I desire so much that I allow email to intrude into almost every aspect of my day-to-day existence.
I am not alone in my use of email. Many people depend on it daily, both for business and pleasure. Does email play as significant a role in their lives as well? Has it become an object they use to think about the world, or perhaps themselves?
For this paper, I interviewed other users of email to try to better understand how the abstract concept of email has become such an important part of people's lives. I also examined my own attitudes towards email, to better understand why it is so important to me. I am interested with people's relationships with email-how email, as a computational artifact, has become a tool that people use to structure, think about, and reflect on their lives.
What makes email different from a telephone call or a postal letter? There is not much about the design of an email message that isn't already in these other systems of communication. The key is that email combines from both of these media (a telephone call or postal letter)-and others-to create a completely unique environment for communication.
Email is a time-independent, textual, casual, location-independent, local-pull medium. I will try to clarify each of these terms in turn.
The term time independent in this context, means that the sender and the receiver needn't be online at the same time in order for communication to take place. The sender can write an email message, send it, and it will wait in the receiver's mailbox until the receiver downloads it. This gives tremendous freedom on both ends-the sender no longer needs to be in direct contact with the receiver to relay the message, and the receiver doesn't need to be online at the time the message is being transmitted to get it. This is a great advantage since busy people, or people located in different time zones, have great difficulty being simultaneously available for communication.
Unlike a postal letter, however, the sender and receiver can be online at the same time, and messages can flow back and forth between them instantly. It is no longer necessary to wait three days (often longer) to get a letter from someone, or to wait for a similarly slow-in-coming reply. This fast turnaround time allows people to communicate with each other on a schedule most convenient for themselves, making correspondence easier, and in many cases, more enjoyable.
Email is, today, a largely textual medium. This makes it easy and intuitive to use: if someone knows how to write, they know how to use email. Using a familiar typewriter-style keyboard (of the sort that's been around for over a century), people can quickly relay their thoughts to others, usually faster than writing them by hand. This also permits people to be more clear in their communication with others, as compared with the telephone: Often, it is difficult to explain an idea out loud, mainly because you have no record of what was (already) said; with email, you can view what was already written, and edit it, making a train of thought more linear and easier to follow. This allows communication between people to be much clearer and much more understandable, on both sides.
Since it resides on the Internet, email can be accessed from anywhere in the world a phone line or Internet connection is available-it is location-independant. People can read their email in a hotel room on a business trip, at home, at work, or while on vacation. It doesn't matter where the sender is; It doesn't matter where the recipient is. Email addresses don't change when people move (change location), so a message sent to a person will always be delivered no matter where the person is. As a result, users don't have to worry about where the person on the other end is, as they have to do with a telephone call or a postal letter. This makes communication much easier and more accessible to everyone.
Lastly, getting email is a choice made by the receiver, not the sender -- it is local-pull, meaning that while a message is sent (pushed) to the receiver, they decide when to 'pull,' or download, that message. Unlike a telephone call, the person on the other end doesn't have to make any connection back. A potential recipient can ignore a message simply by not downloading it. While some may argue that this causes difficulty on the part of the sender, in terms of contacting the receiver, I see this as giving the receiver the choice about whether or not to communicate at any given time -- a choice that was taken away by the advent of the telephone.
Together, these salient features of email empower the user with a real choice about when, where, and how they communicate.
Send me an email to remind me about that
I began using email four years ago, with an account on America Online. Initially, I used it to talk to friends, and, once in a while, to exchange class notes late at night. Today, I use email in various ways. Personal communication with friends and family probably tops the list, with work-related messaging a close second.
From the start, I have used email to enhance my thinking about events in my life. Exchanging class notes with friends was more than me simply making sure I had every paper handed out in class. It was also a way for me to think about the topics discussed in class, a way for me to make sure I understood what was being taught. Email was somewhat unique in this capacity, because it combined the ability to edit a message and the ability to transmit a message almost instantaneously--a combination that is lacking in both a telephone call and a postal letter. Since I was communicating with someone else, I was forced to be clear in how I explained things, which would not necessarily have been the case were I just taking notes for myself.
There is another example of the use of email to think about things, one that pertains specifically to this class: the class mailing list. Throughout the term, I used the mailing list to discuss and to think about topics brought up in class. It was an invaluable tool; it allowed me to clarify ideas we explored in class, as well as to think further about and to explore ideas that stemmed from class discussions. Through it, for example, I gained a better understanding of how I and others felt about the Jewish laws of Kashrit. In this way, email has become a conduit for intelligent discussion, that we would have otherwise had to physically gather for our normal Tuesday afternoon meetings.
In both of these cases, email became a way for me to think about things. The process of putting down my thoughts on a computer screen, to send to someone else, forced me to think about what I was communicating. The nearly instant feedback I received in many cases allowed me to reevaluate my thoughts, and further clarify them, leading to a better understanding of the topic at hand. Email has become a very important tool in my learning process.
There is another important role that email plays in my life: that of my personal organizer. My mind is fallible when it comes to remembering dates and descriptions of events. When told of some gathering I should attend, for example, I often used to scribble a note on a scrap of paper, stick the paper in my wallet, and promptly lose or forget about it. Email provides a better alternative.
Instead of writing the pertinent information on a scrap of paper, I put the information in an email message, and send it to myself, or, if possible, I ask the person who has told me about the event to send me an email message about it. By doing this, I circumvent my forgetfulness-both for the event and for the scrap of paper that I would otherwise have in my wallet. When I return home, and retrieve my email, the event information pops up on the screen, allowing me to place it on a large virtual "sticky-note" that is displayed in the background.
Beyond this role of remembrance agent, using email to keep track of appointments and events allows me to take a step further. Whereas before I would have only a quick note about time and place on a piece of paper, now I have a full description of the event, and I can make an informed judgment just before the event as to whether or not to attend it. In this sense, email has become a tool that I use to think about the scheduling of my life. It has allowed me to make better decisions about what I do with my time. I attend those events that interest me, or that are important, and skip the others. Previously, I had too little information about events to decide which of them were important.
The relationship I have with my email is evocative of the cyborgian relationship Steve Mann has with his wearable computer. There is, however, one significant difference. With email, there is no agency. All interaction is initiated and carried out by me. In Steve Mann's case, his computer makes decisions on its own about what information to present to him. In effect, email is really just a way for me to augment my own memory. (Email can be given some agency, as I will discuss in a later section.)
When I'm on vacation, I want to relax
Jerry is a 48 year old lawyer. His area of expertise is new media law, and, for a professional, he is fairly wired. He has a computer on his desk at work and a laptop he brings home every day. He has user accounts on the major commercial services (such as America Online and CompuServe), and has been using email for the past two years.
Jerry describes the beginning of his email use as mainly communicating with colleagues and clients who also had user accounts on the online services he used. Over the past two years, while his primary use of email hasn't changed very much, the amount of time he spends working with email has greatly increased:
"It is much more ubiquitous in my work. When I started, if I had an email or two or three a week that was important, that was typical. Now if I don't have a half dozen important emails a day, it is unusual. The fact that I have access to everyone [on the Internet], instead of just the people on the service [e.g. America Online] makes it much more useful, so I use it much more, I think about it more, and I use it as a tool in my work. It's there, and it is very efficient for certain things, and it becomes the preferred method of communication for a lot of purposes."
Certainly, email has become an important part of Jerry's workday. He views it as an integral tool that he spends a good deal of time with each day. Email is a way of controlling how he spends his time. Instead of being interrupted by a telephone call or wasting time trying to get in touch with someone, email allows him to work more efficiently, not worrying about playing "telephone tag."
"It's enabled me to do things I couldn't have done before, which adds to my work, but it also allows me to do things more efficiently, which helps me with my workload. It also helps me travel. I can travel, and stay in contact with my clients much more easily. Traveling and getting on the phone are two very inconsistent activities. Traveling and checking email are very consistent activities, because you can time shift your email to whenever you have time during your traveling. It has become a very valuable and important part of my workday: I set aside certain times of the day to check my email. It has also given me much more flexibility; I can do things more easily, with less hassle and anxiety."
Email gives Jerry the chance to make a decision that wasn't left to him in the past-when to communicate. This is a very powerful change. Instead of being bound to other people's schedules, trying to fit a telephone conversation into his and other people's very hectic schedules, Jerry can just send an email message. The other party can respond when convenient, and, likewise, Jerry can read the response when it's convenient for him. He now has the freedom to worry about more important issues.
By enabling Jerry to have more control over how he spends his time, email effects not only his work efficiency, but his emotional state: he has less anxiety about how and when he can communicate with other people. I asked Jerry how email has helped him deal with the anxiety of communicating with other people:
"[Email is] always there. The door is always open; I don't have to do anything. This means that if I want to do something else, as I frequently do when I am traveling, whether for pleasure or work, I don't want to have to get on the phone at a certain time, because it is disruptive to my other activities. My anxiety there is related to the other activities, not the communication. What email enables me to avoid is the anxiety caused by the need to suspend or alter my plans in order to be on the telephone, which I don't like. I like to be in control of what I am doing. If I have a plan, and have to do certain things at certain times, I want to know I can do them without being disrupted."
Jerry pointed out another way that email has enabled him to take control of his life:
"I've had many experiences over the years, particularly on vacation, that have been disrupted because of the need to be on the telephone. That's a big part of it, the disruption. There's another element, though. When you are on the telephone, you are with the other person on the phone, no matter where you are. If you are on the phone with your secretary in the office, for the time you are on the phone, you are effectively in the office. Work has grabbed you back. When you are on vacation, that being grabbed back into reality, wherever you are trying to relax, is very disruptive. So being able to do it via email means not only do I not have to be disrupted, but also I never really have to be back in the office. If I am on vacation, and I need to communicate with someone via email, I never have to give up the feeling of being on vacation and remove myself back to my work environment."
For Jerry, email is about increasing his control over his own life. He can now decide when and where he will communicate with someone. He is no longer slave to his location or to the time of day. He can answer a client's question late in the evening while watching TV, bypassing the need to arrange a phone conversation. He can keep in touch with his office at his leisure while on vacation, regardless of the time difference.
Along with his increased control, email has reduced the control others have over how he spends his time, in effect giving him the freedom to work and play however and whenever he wants. Instead of being interrupted by a client or partner about an issue that is not immediately pressing, Jerry can organize his time to deal with what he deems most important. Before email, he might have been interrupted while relaxing on the beach by a telephone call, forcing him, in his mind, to return to work when he should be resting. Now, he is in control of when he worries about his clients while he is on vacation.
Federico Ardila is a junior at MIT, a theoretical-math major, who uses email on a regular basis. Federico usually uses email to communicate with professors and friends, such as he did this past summer. While Federico was home in Colombia last summer he would email his girlfriend, who was in California. He would write messages to her occasionally, every week or two-very long emails that he would write during marathon four hour sessions:
"I spent so much time writing email that that was usually when I would think about things: me and her, my life. There was a lot of free time with myself. I usually don't get very much free time with myself. I would sit down, and would be writing about something, and would think about it. I would spend the longest time just thinking."
For Federico, email time was a time to think about his life. It was essentially a time when he would step back and reflect on the things that were happening to him, and then write about them to another person. Through this process of sending email, he was able to evaluate what he was doing and how he was living. Email became a tool that he used to think about himself. Since he was writing to another person, he had to make things clear and understandable, and, in doing so, he made his feelings about the way his life was going clear to himself.
Looking into the future
How can email be made a more powerful object-to-think-with? One answer is to give it a physical embodiment, coupled with an intelligent system that knows about its users, and perhaps even about the content of the messages. One of the projects at the Media Lab hopes to do this.
Canard, a project run by Pascal Chenais, takes email to the next level. Each of Canard's 30-odd student participants is equipped with a paging device-a small, two-way email pager from Motorola coupled with a series of smart programs that learn how the user communicates, with whom the user communicates, and when the user communicates. Due to the very recent implementation of this system, I was unable to interview any of the users. I can, however, comment on some of the possible ramifications of such a system.
The first and perhaps most important difference between traditional email and the Canard system is the introduction of agency. No longer is the user required to gather their email. Rather, the system, by learning their schedule and making decisions about the importance of the messages, will decide when and how the user receives their email. This means that those messages that are important to the user, perhaps because they are coming from their four-year-old daughter, will be forwarded right through to the user's pager. In this way, the system works much like a secretary-deflecting unwanted messages, and letting important ones through.
Here, the system has some agency. It can decide to initiate communication with the user and not merely wait until the user decides to check their mail. This would, in effect, cause the user to build a closer relationship with the system. The better the system understands the user, the better it is at routing messages-much like a human secretary. The relationship might even be considered symbiotic: the user gets better service by giving the system more information. Symbiosis is a biological concept, and by mapping it onto an electronic system, the user forms a more personal relationship with the system.
The second difference from the current email system is the physical embodiment given to the messages. Email is no longer merely text on a screen. It has sound (the beep of the pager when a message is received) and feeling (the pager itself) to it. It is physically closer to the person, often riding on a belt or in a pocket. This physical embodiment helps users bring messages closer to themselves and helps to form a relationship with the pager.
Both of these changes push email further into the realm of the cyborg. Email becomes a physical and emotional player in the user's life, a requirement of a cyborgian system. This will hopefully allow email to be utilized in a more powerful way. Instead of having to look at my email message to be reminded about an upcoming event, a process that becomes very difficult when I am not at my computer, my email system can inform me about that event on it's own. For Jerry, this email system can decide whether a message from a client is important enough to interrupt him or perhaps even generate a response for him if it were proper to do so. These paths of interaction between people and messages are just now being explored, and have much to offer.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I've learned from looking at people's relationships with email is that what holds for one person usually doesn't hold for another. Most of the people I talked to used email in its intended fashion-to send and receive messages. While some might argue that even this basic interaction with email is enough to cause people to use it to think about things, I feel that it would be difficult to see this. For most people, email is just a tool, nothing more. There are some people, however, for whom email is more than that. It is those cases, where email as an object-to-think-with is more obvious, that are the interesting ones, and the ones most telling about email's power.
Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto" in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London:Free Association Books, 1991
Mann, Steve. "Clothing-Based Computing". Cambridge, 1995
Interview with Jerry, December 1, 1996: 80 minutes
Interview with Federico, December 7, 1996: 35 minutes