HALF a century before the invention of e-mail, T. S. Eliot asked, “where is the wisdom that has been lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge that has been lost in information?” If he were alive today, contemplating an electronic inbox on his flickering computer, he might well have added, “where is the information that has been lost in trivia?”

It is one of the paradoxes of our times that inventions meant to speed matters up inevitably end up slowing us down. When e-mail first came into my life, I was thrilled; instead of correspondence piling up for months as I struggled to find the time to pen a reply, instead of faxes not going through and cables that cost an arm and a leg per word, I now had a means of getting messages through instantaneously, efficiently and free. I became an avid and diligent e-mailer.

And how I regret it.

I get over a hundred e-mails a day, sometimes twice that. Some of them are urgent (but not necessarily important) work-related questions. Some of them are personal letters, friends reaching across time and space to say hello. (Many are from job-seekers, but that is another story). Some are one-line queries, others lengthy documents requiring perusal and comment. Some are unsolicited junk mail, offering products and services I did not ask for and do not have the time to find out whether I want.

Some are mass mailings of information, both interesting (like Sreenath Sreenivasan’s selection of media stories for South Asian journalists) and diverting (like CricInfo’s daily updates of cricket news around the world). Some — an astonishingly large number — are jokes, of varying quality, both verbal and visual. And increasingly, some are viruses that have attached themselves to the address-books of friends, with attachments which, if opened, could destroy my computer.

Because they are on the screen, I have to go through them all, if only to make sure that I do not need to read them. And this is a chore that has taking more and more of my time. Whereas, when e- mail first came into vogue, one could spend 15 to 20 minutes a day on it, now receiving and sending e-mails adds two to three hours to an average day. (Not counting the time lost in attending to false virus warnings, the plague of our times). And since one’s other work does not stop, those are hours added to one’s day, and therefore subtracted from one’s life. A convenience has become a burden.

When I am at my computer, I find myself neglecting more important matters that have come to me by “snail mail” (or what is nowadays referred to as “hard copy”) in order to dispose of e- mail. E-mails automatically become urgent, because you know that if you do not reply to one immediately, it will soon be swamped by 200 others and you will forget that you have failed to reply to it. You find yourself scrambling to attend to e-mails of utter triviality for no other reason than to get past them to the possibly important ones that lie behind. The result is “information fatigue” — a palpable sense of exhaustion from dealing with too much information, coupled with anxiety about coping with the sheer volume of material to be digested, and an ever-shortening attention span in the face of what seems an unstoppable flood of facts. I felt, to recall Eliot, that I understood more when I knew less, and knew more when I had less information to process.

This is a global problem — an estimated 6.1 billion e-mails are sent out daily around the world, and the figure continues to increase by the day. As technology advances, it has become more and more difficult to escape the ubiquity of e-mail. No longer is one obliged to open up a desktop computer at the office; now people are plugging in laptops on planes and trains to read their mail, and the latest text-equipped cell-phones have allowed people to check their e-mail wherever they are, even on the Tokyo underground.

It is almost enough to have one longing again for the day when information was a scarce resource and you had to go out to find it. Now there is so much information around that the challenge is to sift the really necessary information for the trivial chaff that surrounds it. And here, to paraphrase Kipling, it is clear that the e-mail of the species is deadlier than the mail.

Addiction to e-mail is increasingly being recognised as a malady. The British national lottery operators, Camelot, passed an edict recently banning e-mails on Fridays. They wanted staff to talk to each other instead at least one day a week. But the experiment was abandoned within a month.

People are simply too used to the convenience of copying messages to multiple recipients and hitting the send button: walking to their desks is now an unfamiliar idea.

Part of the problem is that we keep allowing the avatars of progress to persuade us t

Source: The Hindu