Keeping the Lines of Communication Open


Why would we restrict the use of tools that allow us to communicate more effectively, just because they allow us to communicate more effectively?


by Richard White

I’ve read a lot of scary headlines in the last few weeks. “Digital diversions leave teens, parents sleep-deprived.” “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.” “Beware of digital overload and technology fatigue.”

I’ve also heard people complain about overflowing email inboxes, and a feeling that they should answer emails at any time of day. Some of us compulsively check our smartphones any spare moment to see if we’ve been buzzed (via Google), tweeted (via Twitter), texted (via phone), chatted (via instant message), friended (via Facebook), emailed, or even phoned (how primitive!). And after all that, if you’re still feeling twitchy you can always play a game, surf the Internet, or read a downloaded book on that same phone.

You can also use a computer to do all these things, if you’re a few years behind the times… ;)

Look, people, it’s really very simple. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, digitally… turn off your phone. Don’t check your work email account after work. Let your Facebook status lapse for a day or three. Stop twittering about your mood swings. Unless you’ve been clinically diagnosed with some obsessive-compulsive variant, just put the phone/computer away for awhile.

Or don’t. If you find–as some do–that increased communication has actually made your life better, then by all means, have at it. Blog your life. Open up on Facebook. Text during dinner. But you don’t get it both ways. You don’t get to open up a dozen new input channels to your brain and then complain about being deluged by information. The two go hand in hand.

For some people, email overload may have developed from a feeling that those messages, because they are transmitted instantly, must be responded to instantly. Workflow-efficiency pundits haven’t helped matters by advocating an “Inbox Zero” policy, suggesting that any unread emails in one’s Inbox are a bane to be avoided at all cost. Recent research emphasizes what should have been obvious all along: checking one’s email every 15 minutes disrupts the concentration often necessary for real work to get done, to say nothing of throwing a huge monkey wrench into one’s after-hours personal life.

Another obvious note: just because you receive an email at 8pm doesn’t mean you have to immediately reply to it. It should be understood that, when away from work, one doesn’t have to DO work. No one expects you to respond to, or even read, a work email that was sent after hours. (And if there ARE expectations by some people here, then those need to be addressed.)

For some teachers, the email pressure has gotten so bad that I’ve heard rumblings around my school site of a movement to restrict certain forms of these communications and/or the hours that they may be used. “No sending emails after 9pm,” for instance.

Let’s think about this for a moment. First of all, from a technological perspective, the idea doesn’t make sense: telling someone not to send an email after 9pm is like telling someone not to leave a voicemail after 9pm–leaving the voicemail (or sending the email) has absolutely nothing to do with when the message is received, and neither type of communication impacts the recipient until he or she chooses to check that voicemail or email account.

Second, this is a misguided effort to regulate people’s workflow, something for which the school is not, and should not be, responsible. If I have a problem managing my digital world, that needs to be addressed by me, and not by the school. And on the other hand, if my successfully-managed workflow includes sending out emails at odd hours of the morning, evening, or weekend, well… why shouldn’t I? (Come to think of it, that’s what my boss does!) The alternative is to… make me wait until I’m at school to send email?!

Third, the idea is unenforceable. We all work when we want or need to, and a stricture against sending emails at certain times is going to be as effective as a regulation against grading student papers at certain times: you can tell me I can’t grade on weekends, but I have to, on occasion. The student won’t receive the paper until later on, during an appropriate time. In the same way, I’m going to communicate with colleagues, parents, and students via email when I have to, even if they don’t receive the message until later on, at an appropriate time as determined by them.

I’m not forced to turn off the TV just before the one show I watch because most of the U.S. has already watched four hours that day. And my dietary intake is not restricted because someone else is overweight.

“Electronic curfews” destroy the very thing that makes most digital communication powerful: the ability for a sender to communicate as needed, with actual delivery managed by the recipient.

Restricting the freedom to take advantage of that communication doesn’t make any sense.

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