Not waving, but drowning


“Gavin just told me you canceled. Thanks for letting me know,” my friend Jason Norwood-Young angrily WhatsApp’d me for missing our breakfast meeting. But, I replied, I emailed you last night to say I had to make another impromptu meeting.

“Email is not realtime,” he eventually replied to my long-missed missive. “I usually only check email after midday, and seldom after 5.”

And he doesn’t. Jason, a genius software developer who lives in Cape Town, is conducting another experiment. He hasn’t bought airtime for his mobile phone since the beginning of the year, surviving on data alone. He’ll take my calls when I call, so I never noticed, but half the year has passed and he’s feeling no ill effects.

Everything in me wants to do the same: to free myself from this endless, truly endless cycle of checking email, text messages, WhatsApp messages, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Twitter DMs, and sometimes WeChat. And the email, the never-ending email.

I’ve become an email grouch. I lash out at any PR firm that spams me with irrelevant emails. I unsubscribe constantly from mailing lists I’ve never signed up to ( is the worst offender). I furiously delete from my inbox. Delete, delete, delete. But it never stops.

GmailI have 31 939 unread emails in my inbox as I write this. I’ve just given up ever trying to read them all. I read as many as I can. I delete the streams of useless press releases. I reflexively swipe left on my phone to delete irrelevant product after pointless unrelated company announcement.

I thought for years it was because I was a journalist that I was bombarded by endless email from mailing lists someone in PR thought I should belong to because I couldn’t live without knowing about how their washing machine was given a Red Dot Triple A Who Cares design award.

I’d like an app on my phone to calculate how much of my inbox – or how much of the time I spend managing it – is just deleting emails that are irrelevant to what I do.

But I’ve discovered everyone lives with this deluge of email, just in differing volumes. Everyone I speak to – and not just in cerebral knowledge economy circles – has the same despairing attitude towards email.

It can’t be denied that email is one of the greatest achievements of humanity, a seamless way to communicate with anyone else. It has forever changed and enhanced our experience of communication. Gone are the week-long time it takes a letter, bill or wedding invite to reach its recipient. Email might not have begun the instant-gratification cycle, but it certainly has perfected it.

It has enabled a whole new way of working to develop, for the knowledge economy to emerge. But, as we all know, it has its many downsides.

I have fallen into that trap of constantly checking my email through the day, and instantly replying when I get an important email. It’s a never ending cycle of an almost feverish obsession with making sure you haven’t missed something.

But, it is, in the immortal words of poet Stevie Smith, I’m “not waving but drowning”.

I used that line as the headline for a similarly lamenting column in 2009 about how this crisis of overload seemed to have overwhelmed me when we all still used BlackBerries for our “e-mail” as it was still spelt back then.

“A part of the problem lies in e-mail’s immediacy,” I wrote. “Its sudden arrival seems to usurp any sense of priority we ever had. It leaps to the front of the queue for time and attention — and our forebrain dutifully complies. Forget heroin, e-mail is the designer drug of the Noughties. It’s hardwired into some cerebral cortex in our brain that must — it must — derive some absurd, bizarre and Hunter S Thompson-esque pleasure.”

We’ve all now addicted to our email. Even as we hate it.

Clever apps keep appearing to help us: Inbox Zero, Xobni (inbox spelt backwards), Mailbox and others that aid sorting email. Gmail has a range of filters to pick up social media announcements and other spam lumped under the euphemistic “promotions”.

This is just one email sufferer’s lament. How can we fix it? Escape from it? Survive it? I don’t know yet.

This column first published on Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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