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On Email and Horses

Cal's image on New York Times with red background.

Earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine published a conversation between me and the journalist David Marchese.  We touched on a lot of the ideas about digital technology and the workplace that I elaborate in my 2021 book, A World Without Email.

At one point during the interview, however, I came up with a new metaphor on the fly, which now, looking back, I recognize as potentially adding a useful new wrinkle to my thinking on these topics. Here’s the exchange:

Marchese: But hasn’t the cultural-technological ship sailed when it comes to this stuff? Or, to mix metaphors, part of me is wondering if what you’re suggesting is a little like saying that getting from place to place by horse is a lot more cognitively rewarding and humane than driving everywhere — which may be true, but no one’s going back to horses. What company is going to tell its employees to cut back on email and Slack?

Me: The right metaphor here is not “Let’s stick with horses, even though automobiles are around,” because automobiles were clearly a more energy and monetarily efficient way of moving things from A to B, just like email is clearly a more efficient way for me to deliver a memo to you than a fax machine. The metaphor is that it took a while before we figured out traffic rules and understood that it can’t just be cars going wild through the street. Eventually we figured out we need stoplights and lanes and traffic enforcement.

Almost by definition, if a technology rapidly spreads it’s because it’s doing something notably better than what came before it — be it delivering business information or drool-bucket distraction. Given this reality, nostalgia is often counter-productive: returning to an older generation of tools, in most cases, would be returning to less effective tools.

What trips us up, however, is when we leap from this solid observation to the shaky conclusion that new technologies should therefore be left alone to infiltrate our culture without checks or guidance. Email is clearly better than intra-office mail and fax machines, but does this mean work should require us to check an inbox once every six minutes? An iPhone is clearly a superior device to a Motorola Razr, but does this mean 12-year-olds should be using them? Cars are clearly more efficient than horses, but should I be allowed to drive 60 mph down a quiet residential street?

The right question is not, is this useful? But instead, how do we want to use it?


In other news…

In the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I discuss recent research that shows lumberjacks are significantly more happy than lawyers, and then attempt to extract lessons from this data about how best to craft a meaningful professional life.

In my recent appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast, Making Sense, I gave Sam my argument for why I thought he should leave Twitter. A few days later: he did! I can’t actually take credit for Sam’s decision (he had been pondering it for a while), but it was a fun conversation nonetheless.

8 thoughts on “On Email and Horses”

  1. Great post Cal!

    I am wondering if we can include a third question to supplement your last two:

    “The right question is neither is this useful, nor how do we want to use it, but what is this thing?”

    I have come back to reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. His insights on television and the paradigm shift it created by moving from a typographic culture to an entertainment one are profound in this respect.

    So maybe it would be worth considering the following order of questions: what is this thing, is it useful for our way of life, and if it is, then how do we want to use it? Perhaps framing it in this way aligns well with your notion of “slow productivity.”

  2. An Amish family has moved into my grandparents’ old house, on the same old farmland where my parents (and a bunch of aunts, uncles, and cousins) still live. They have four young children similar in age to our four kids — and a spectacular backyard play area — so we spent a lot of time together this past summer when we were visiting from our home abroad. I had many fascinating conversations with them about technology and society.

    I am reminded of them because the Amish (at least in our area) not only drive horses and buggies, but they also pay “English” drivers to take them on car trips, and they use public transportation (especially bus services that run regular Amish-relevant routes). I asked the mother of this family how she decided whether to take the buggy or hire a car and driver, and she was readily able to describe the principles she employs in making this decision. I was struck by their thoughtful, values-based approach to the use (and non-use) of technology, and I wince when people call the Amish hypocrites for riding in, but not driving, cars, as if making decisions about when to use technology is ethically inferior to using it by default.

    I’m obviously not arguing that we should all become Amish, but I think (and I believe Cal also mentions this in Digital Minimalism) we have something to learn from the practice of considering personal and community ramifications when determining whether, and how, to employ technology.

  3. Arrived at the same conclusion based on 56 years of monastic meditation practice. The fundamental question is “What do people want?” Answer: happiness and freedom from suffering. Next question: “What thoughts, feelings, and action promote happiness and reduce suffering?” Answer: Actions that expand awareness beyond the limitations of the narrow ego-self; e.g., kindness, compassion, service, etc.” Next question: “How does this apply to technology?” Answer: It’s obvious – use tech to spread hatred or engage with tech in ways that don’t expand awareness through body, heart, will, mind, and soul, and you won’t be happy or healthy. Anyhow, works for me.

  4. I just read the NYT piece. Excellent. Your work could be useful for our efforts to reduce the online burden on DC Public School students post-2020. Middle school students (age 11-14) are required to do most homework online now, many apps and platforms (shifting even within one assignment), and must carry a laptop to each class. Our kids are overwhelmed and distracted! These are new requirements since the pandemic, which persist despite school being in-person.

  5. Your conversation with the Times really resonated with me. The idea that we need to learn how to use these powerful tools for the collective good is logical. It also seems to go against two strong forces: 1) Corporate urgency for immediate advantage and 2) Our cultural ethos of me first.

    If be interested if there are good sources of research or ongoing projects focused on collective practices. I work in organizational change management, where its all about changing behaviors to get the most value out of major shifts. I’m reality, it’s more about what leadership views as the right answer. Lately, it’s been driving in office participation and deploying tools that enable collaboration (without thought on what we really need and how to use them). But it’s based off of a certain set of biases, experiences, and priorities.

    Always looking for proven (or to be part of existing projects) to find better paths forward.


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