I spent the last day of Western Civilization addressing the very phenomenon that caused our collective downfall: email.
On November 8th — Election Day — I spent six hours in a rented studio in Manhattan, taping a new class for Skillshare. Email Productivity: Work Smarter with Your Inbox is a forty-minute video class made up of bite-sized lessons that show how you can conquer email overload with mail rules so that you spend less time on email, and have more time for the work that matters most.
Watching the class now is like watching a time capsule from a previous, better lifetime — one in which the worst thing that could happen on email was missing a message, or getting distracted at the dinner table. The mistake I made, back in that other world, was in thinking of email as a tool that each of us could use as we saw fit.
But now I know that email is something we all have to tackle together. That’s because somewhere along the way, email became our collective id: the repository of our pleas for attention, our flimsiest marketing gimmicks, our furtive love affairs.
Email became the thing we looked at when we first woke up in the morning, and just before we went to sleep at night. As the conduit for our work, our schedules, our ideas and our relationships, email acquired the essence of our culture, and became Us Personified: email became Email.
And now, Email is having its revenge.
Email launched its first assault in a form that will be familiar to anyone who has done battle with corporate email policy. If you’ve ever worked in an organization that forced you to use its crappy mail system instead of your own carefully chosen mail provider, you may relate to Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up her own private server instead of the account provided by the State Department. Or you might sweep that justification aside in favor of the theory that she just wanted to shield her communications from Freedom of Information requests.
In either case, we know what was really at work behind the scenes: Email, that sower of fear. Fed by our contradictory desires for privacy and connection, for discretion and for accountability, Email has grown into a vengeful beast that can destroy the best of us. We have imbued Email with so much power and mystery (what exactly is a private email server, many people wondered) that we are filled with terror at the sight of a woman in charge of her own inbox.
One among us dared to imagine that we could master Email. So Email decided to show us who’s boss.
But raking a candidate over a few mid-election coals was not enough to satisfy Email’s wrath. Four decades of abuse could not be avenged by dragging a single leader through the mud: it required large-scale, mass humiliation. The kind of humiliation you get when tens of thousands of messages are freed from their confinement, and set loose on WikiLeaks.
Sure, Russia played a role, but Vladimir Putin was Email’s bitch. It’s Email that destroyed not only Hillary but the entire DNC leadership, consoling us with little more than a questionable risotto recipe.
Now that Email has delivered the US Presidency to Donald Trump, it is poised to deliver its final blow. In Donald Trump, Email has the ultimate ally: a ruler so feared, and so fearless, that he renders online communication suspect.
No more can we use Email to circulate news, secure in the knowledge that it will be read and believed. No more can we trust our Email providers the way we trust our priests, placing faith in the sanctity of the user-ISP relationship. No more can we burden Email with our secrets, secure in the expectation that our messages will go unread by government eyes.
Yet I have good news for you, my fellow citizens. We may have created this creature known as Email; this perfect avatar of our secrets, our fears and our cravings. We may have imbued this demon with such mystical, all-encompassing power that the mere phrase “email scandal” inspires greater derision than a cumulative record of tax evasion, discrimination and sexual assault. We may fear the Email beast so much that we have reconciled ourselves to spending hours and hours in its service, each and every day.
But we need not accept Email defeat. We can resist the Email onslaught, and even bend Email to our will.
We can wrestle Email to the ground with mail rules, and reclaim our time and attention.
We can use encryption to secure the messages that Email (or the NSA, or Mother Russia) might choose to turn against us.
We might even make peace with Email, so that its mysterious, fear-inducing powers can never again drive us into the arms of those who would destroy the very foundation of free communications.
First, we retake our inboxes. Tomorrow, America!