This page is an excerpt of a page written, except for the addition of certain hyperlinks and re-formatting, by David Donoho and originally located at .

E-Mail M-words

It's 1 AM. I am in Israel. I have been sitting in front of my Laptop most of the time since 7:30 AM and I have sent more than 100 e-mails today. My In box still has 80 e-mails. At various times in the day it was below 50, but then people started to wake up in the USA and I couldn't compete. Little me against a whole continent. >>All of it<< trying to deluge >>me<< with messages.

I have now about 50 Megabytes of back e-mail, stored meticulously in folders; I can find mail I sent a year or two ago, and recover 50 page documents that were mailed to me or that I mailed to someone. Etc.

The cost is that I have gone through a lengthy re-education and I have had to obtain a lot of software and computing equipment to make this possible. And I have to live my life in a way which is profoundly different. Plus I still haven't gotten there, e-mail masters me, I don't master e-mail.

I am still struggling to find a metaphor for this experience. My standards for the metaphor are high. This metaphor must guide me to into a frame of mind where I will instinctively make proper use of the technology, to live moment by moment in a way that will keep my head above water. (Well, there's the beginning of a metaphor there: a flood, a swimmer, a struggle, drowning, ... too depressing, unhelpful, bad metaphor. ``Down, metaphor, Down,'' I cry silently)

You see, at various times my in-box has gotten as much as 1000 messages deep. ``How did it get that way?'' you ask. Don't ask. ``Is something that can get so out of control really useful'' you ask. Don't ask. I am depending on e-mail to keep track of several things happening back in California; *without* e-mail, we couldn't have gone away. The only question is: *with* e-mail did we actually go away. I sometimes doubt it.

Today I read and answered e-mail in five different sessions. In between the session from 4-5 PM and the session from 8-9PM 30 new messages arrived. About 20 more came between 9 PM and 1AM. I am turning over a new leaf. I used to allow messages to accumulate. I would look on messages as a monk might have in the dark ages, turn over the issues raised, attempt some comprehensive response, even write an article on a topic brought up in e-mail. But now I look at them as hot-potatos, that burn unless you respond right away. Now I am at the other extreme: sometimes there's no actual thought or real progress in many consecutive e-mails, because of this hurry. It's like fencing, parrying blows with guttural accompaniment.

For example, I used to write e-mails to students saying, ``wouldn't it be nice if ....'', and ``don't you think X and Y and Z would be good to do ...'' Then I would get the monosyllabic response "yes". Of course, what I had >>meant<<was that I wanted them to do X and Y and Z, I actually was only speaking rhetorically. So now in e-mail I am learning to say: ''Dear A, please do X and Y by friday''. I am giving up all sublety in order to beat the ping-pong effect of a series of monosyllabic e-mails.

I have used many metaphors explicitly or implicitly in the last few paragraphs. None of them quite fits. Am I a ping-pong player, a camp counselor tossing hot potatoes, a swimmer in a torrential deluge? Am I an exterminator? Is the e-mail experience like basketball, each message coming in amounting to a score for the opposition, each message out evening the score. (I look in my in-box. One of the 80 messages needing attention is from Michael Jordan.)

Maybe I need to think in terms of a different M-word: Myths? What about Jason facing dozens of dragons which spring up continually only to be cut down, and spring up again? What about Sisyphus and the hilltop he can never reach? What about Prometheus chained to the rock? His guts eaten out daily by vultures etc. etc.

Still another M-word comes to mind: Mantra. Instead of myth or metaphor, give me a chant that will keep me in the right state of mind. Instead of 'Om', maybe 'Out'-'Out'-'Out', would make a good e-mail power chant.
Last Modified: February 13, 1996
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