Earlier this week, the New York Times Magazine published a conversation between me and the journalist David Marchese. We touched on a lot of the ideas about digital technology and the workplace that I elaborate in my 2021 book, A World Without Email.
At one point during the interview, however, I came up with a new metaphor on the fly, which now, looking back, I recognize as potentially adding a useful new wrinkle to my thinking on these topics. Here’s the exchange:
Marchese: But hasn’t the cultural-technological ship sailed when it comes to this stuff? Or, to mix metaphors, part of me is wondering if what you’re suggesting is a little like saying that getting from place to place by horse is a lot more cognitively rewarding and humane than driving everywhere — which may be true, but no one’s going back to horses. What company is going to tell its employees to cut back on email and Slack?
Me: The right metaphor here is not “Let’s stick with horses, even though automobiles are around,” because automobiles were clearly a more energy and monetarily efficient way of moving things from A to B, just like email is clearly a more efficient way for me to deliver a memo to you than a fax machine. The metaphor is that it took a while before we figured out traffic rules and understood that it can’t just be cars going wild through the street. Eventually we figured out we need stoplights and lanes and traffic enforcement.
Almost by definition, if a technology rapidly spreads it’s because it’s doing something notably better than what came before it — be it delivering business information or drool-bucket distraction. Given this reality, nostalgia is often counter-productive: returning to an older generation of tools, in most cases, would be returning to less effective tools.
What trips us up, however, is when we leap from this solid observation to the shaky conclusion that new technologies should therefore be left alone to infiltrate our culture without checks or guidance. Email is clearly better than intra-office mail and fax machines, but does this mean work should require us to check an inbox once every six minutes? An iPhone is clearly a superior device to a Motorola Razr, but does this mean 12-year-olds should be using them? Cars are clearly more efficient than horses, but should I be allowed to drive 60 mph down a quiet residential street?
The right question is not, is this useful? But instead, how do we want to use it?
In other news…
In the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I discuss recent research that shows lumberjacks are significantly more happy than lawyers, and then attempt to extract lessons from this data about how best to craft a meaningful professional life.
In my recent appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast, Making Sense, I gave Sam my argument for why I thought he should leave Twitter. A few days later: he did! I can’t actually take credit for Sam’s decision (he had been pondering it for a while), but it was a fun conversation nonetheless.