Shakespeare weighs in on e-mail

October 28, 2008: 11:34 AM ET

Macbeth said it. Act 5, Scene 5, I think. "It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Most people think he was talking about Life. We know better. He was obviously talking about e-mail.

Take today, for instance. It's only 8 AM and here's what I have:

Some vendor I don't know is asking me to upgrade a program I don't own. An industry trade is sending me its daily morning newsletter. A magazine I don't read is featuring its monthly lineup. The New York Times is sending me Today's Headlines. Allposters.com tells me that for 48 hours only I can get up to 30% off on some posters I don't want. Who gets posters? I don't. Maybe one day a while ago I bought a poster for my kid. Now every day I get an offer about posters. I thought I spammed that. I guess I'll do it again. Friggin' Reunion.com won't get off my back! There's some guy in the Yukon Territory, I'm not making this up, who keeps searching my name. I don't know anybody there, but he keeps searching me. And they keep telling me about it. When I try to exit their site, I get an error message! What a pain! I'll send them to junk mail, too, except haven't I already done that? Why do they keep coming back? Telecharge is offering me low-priced tickets to a show I don't want to see... two newsletters I signed up for that have interesting stuff I'm not interested in... another newsletter! And another! News stories from all over. Gossip sites with their daily blab. Sales numbers! Hm. God. It's rough out there and I don't need a spreadsheet to tell me. More sales numbers. More news stories. Sales numbers. Request for approval on something I've already approved. A chain about nothingness on which I'm cc'd. Another of those. A self-congratulatory note masquerading as an attaboy. A blog. Another blog. And another. An ad pimping for an upcoming conference. And another. Who can afford to go to all these conferences in this economic environment? Oh look. Here's a conference on the technology of conference calls. It's in Park City, Utah! Gotta go to that, right? An ad from JetBlue. An ad from Restoration Hardware.

Finally I see there's a draft of a document I need to read. At last! Content! Real, honest-to-God content! Except you know what? The guy's assistant just dropped the hard copy on my desk fifteen minutes ago. So the purpose of the e-mail is unclear. Do I need an electronic document? In fact, why is any of this here? As far as I'm concerned, twenty years into the medium, legitimate uses for e-mail are limited to:

  • making plans for meals, meetings, meetings over meals
  • transmission of jokes and funny videos
  • news alerts signifying the end of the world, which clearly is at hand
  • orders from the boss
  • information about upcoming parties
  • data

Beyond that, I have a suggestion: We're clearly into an era of downsizing. How about extending that trend to electronic transactions? I mean, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace, and all that. But does every last syllable of recorded time have to be documented?

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