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August 12, 2009

E-mail: Are you lawyering or typing? Is either one of them working for you?

Humans are damn fine machines when plugged into one another. Voices, vibes, faces, bodies, winks, hand gestures, touching another's hand or shoulder impulsively, stares, grins, frowns, hand-written thank you notes, human electricity, NOT-typing, non-virtual joking, yelling, ragging and flirting, real confrontation, intimacy and the "god-in-the-room" magic that starts with two breathing humans in one 3-D place. Stuff gets done, too--and done right. What happened?

--What About Clients? in past posts over the years.

I remember when I first got e-mail, back in the mid-1990s. I would rush home with great anticipation and dial in my 4800-baud modem and I would have...four messages from four very good friends....Now, of course, I get up in the morning and go to my computer and have sixty-four messages, and the anticipation I once felt has been replaced by dread.

--Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, in Afterword to 2002 edition, 274 (Little, Brown & Co.)

E-mail is an overhyped, misused tool. And so are you if you use it without thinking. I receive about 100 non-spam e-mails a day. I write about one third that many, most as replies. Usually short ones. They are often soulless, and easy to misunderstand, even when I try to be precise. Unless I am scheduling when and where to meet someone, I am not sure that I see the point of it anymore.

The e-mails I get back are often worse than the ones I write. The truth: most lawyers just can't write. When they write, they "talk to themselves"--like mental patients do rocking back and forth. Typing it themselves makes all that more of a problem.

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E-mailing "just because" is Bad Craziness--and you might start seeing those bats. Or worse. (Art: R. Steadman)

My rule, lately: If I spend more than two hours total a day facing a computer screen, I think of that day as a Failure. My job is to think, brainstorm, plan, organize, write, persuade and solve problems. If I spend more than a total of two hours being my own (and third) administrative assistant--and that includes both productive "thinking" and email-returning "non-thinking" typing--I am just another new Insular Robot Worker-Human.

Forget about being One with the Cosmos; I am barely One with the Zip Code, the Suburb, or the Office Building. Even in my office, with people around, I am an Electronic Island With Cool Toys. Alone. Cut off. Isolated. In reality, and ironically, I am not communicative at all. Ah, good morning fellow dumb-downed robots.

You have a good idea? About the firm, or solving a problem for a client? If you e-mail me about it, you have become insane. Whether you are down the hall, or 2000 miles away, you have lost it. Okay, e-mail me once. Yes, writing helps put your thoughts in order. Sure, get my attention. Then call me. Or meet with me. We can make your idea better while we are talking--and do that quicker. Get the juices flowing.

Voices and "bodies in the room" are perhaps 100 times faster and better at defining and solving a problem. At least. Add a third human--you will get more. Humans are damn fine machines when plugged into one another.

But, and I repeat: if you e-mail me about a truly great idea, and expect to develop the idea efficiently in an e-mail discourse, you are truly insane. Get the net.

Back to Galdwell, in the second opening quote. As it's been eight years since he wrote the above, and he is even more famous, Gladwell surely gets more than 100 each day. It's a mantra now that communications technologies save time and money, including bucks on brick and mortar rents for business. It's all true, exciting, Yankee innovative-cool and--a word film actor William Hurt uncannily slips into so many of his lines over the years--forever "evolving."

See Me, Feel Me, Call Me. But some of us don't even talk as much to people we see every day at work. We do e-mail. What happened to voices, vibes, faces, bodies, winks, hand gestures, touching another's hand or shoulder impulsively, stares, grins, frowns, hand-written thank you notes, human electricity, NOT-typing, non-virtual joking, yelling, ragging and flirting, occasional confrontation, intimacy and the "god-in-the-room" magic that starts with two breathing humans in one 3-D place? Or at least on the phone?

Folks, the electronic toys we have were supposed to be helping tools--not be the main event. Do we appreciate the way e-mail, search engines and social media (yes, including blogging) often degrade and dumb down the complexity of hard problems in this world? Has all this made us smarter and better? Or are we just lemmings, cattle and sheep--lulled into thinking we must be doing good work if these new tools are so amazing? Is Google--how many impulses, instincts, synapses does the otherwise useful Google Dude have?--more inspiring and useful than the wonderfully fast and storied brain of that lawyer next door?

Has "tech" permitted a large cross-section of previously functional humans to hide from--and never learn and benefit from--the complexity of life and work? And from each other?

Posted by JD Hull at August 12, 2009 11:59 PM

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