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E-mail - Problem Solved or Created?

E-mail - Problem Solved or Created?

At the annual Alan Turing memorial lecture given by Grady Booch in London last month, he chose as his subject, The promise, the limits, and the beauty of software. It was an excellent address in which one of the themes was that for each of the incredible advances that software has brought to our lives, there is an almost Newtonian opposite effect that is negative and destructive. One such example given was e-mail: while making us able to communicate instantly with our peers, allowing effective and immediate information sharing, it brings its own set of problems. Issues with information theft, virus attachments, phishing, worms, and privacy are well documented and are very real threats although, to a certain extent, these are merely mirrors of real-world phenomena that e-mail merely amplifies and concentrates. The question that interests me the most is whether e-mail actually increases or decreases communication effectiveness.

The success of humans as a species over other animals can almost solely be attributed to our ability to communicate with each other. While this may have evolved as a mechanism to simply aid survival in the wild, it allows one generation to capture and record knowledge and information that it can share with its offspring. They in turn don't have to rediscover the fundamentals of how to perform a particular task, such as hunting, weaving, or building homes, and can enjoy a more efficient existence than their forefathers, and as a result can increase the body of acquired knowledge for their offspring. Discourse between individuals took the form of face-to-face encounters, where body language, speech inflexion, emotions, etc., are all present and the physical nature of a meeting constrains its length and duration. Telephones and, to a certain extent, instant message clients, extend the distance over which this exchange of ideas and information can occur. Printing, the act of recording words in text, was designed primarily as one-way flow of information between the writer and the reader. Twenty-first century e-mail is something that challenges us because, being text based, it lies in the family of printed media; however, its usage is less for publishing information and more as a forum for exchanging ideas and opinions and performing long-distance discussions.

One problem this brings is that once there are more end points and inputs available, the phenomenon information overload occurs. This describes a state in which a person isn't able to make a decision or informed choice about a particular topic because he or she has too much data to digest. It occurs because e-mail often creates a low signal-to-noise ratio where important content is buried in a swath of reply lists and carbon-copied exchanges that the recipient has to trawl through, often following external links to further citations that then link to more and more sources of information, making the information-gathering process potentially endless and unbound. A New Scientist report, www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7298, found that the net effect of e-mail information overload was to lower the recipient's IQ by 10 points; the same drop that occurs by missing a full night's sleep. Interestingly, men did twice as worse as women in the research, although whether this is due to the ability to process the volume of information more effectively or organize ones time more efficiently isn't concluded by the study.

E-mail addiction is another disturbing problem that has its own advice centers and, ironically, mailing lists you can subscribe to and receive helpful advice in your in-box www.netaddiction.com. Behavioral traits to watch for include answering messages during meals or social engagements. The reason this is problematic is because the urge to open the mail isn't because the sender is expecting it to occur; it's because the recipient's urge to know why and by whom he is being contacted is more interesting than his current surroundings. It reminds me of the old adage, "How do you keep a fool in suspense?", to which the answer is, "I'll tell you tomorrow."

Anthroposemiotics, the study of group dynamics, identifies that e-mail, like driving a car, gives people a sense of anonymous power. The same emotion that gives rise to road rage can cause people to exhibit aggressive behavior with e-mails where the language and tone of the exchange is one that would never occur if the conversation occurred face to face. Senders of flame mail are disconnecting themselves from reality by using their computer as an alternative reality to which their alter ego belongs. Just as video game fights and conflicts allow people to vent aggressive frustrations in imaginary virtual worlds, the computer as a machine is our medium in which people can reinvent themselves and engage foes with seemingly physical impunity.

The ineffectiveness of e-mail has even prompted various companies to ban it on certain days of the week, forcing employees to resort to more traditional communication means, such as having a chat in the hallway or talking to a colleague over the phone. Others have gone even further - including complete corporate-wide e-mail bans http://news.zdnet.co.uk/itmanagement/0,1000000308,39116502,00.htm. It seems draconian that such measures need to be taken, analogous to avoiding food poisoning by going on a hunger strike.

The problem with e-mail ineffectiveness can almost always be solved by applying simple time management rules to its usage and only visiting the in-box at sensibly placed intervals in each day, rather than operating in a reactive high-interrupt mode. While this does work to make one's day more effective, it does put the onus of responsibility back onto the user rather than the creator of the software. A disturbing trait I've encountered throughout my career as a software engineer is one in which programmers blame users for incorrect operation, with quips such as "they should have read the manual" or "user error, they were stupid enough to take the wrong option that deleted their data." Software is now so prevalent in our lives that it has become part of the fabric of society, and as engineers we should apply ourselves to thinking about the negative consequences of its usage and try to understand and prevent the extremes of its usage and abusage; whether intended or accidental. If nothing else, we owe it to the generation that follows us.

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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Brian Smith 04/19/07 05:12:04 PM EDT

You should read Neil Postman's Technopoly.

Regards.