Where did non-business email go?

by Gautam Raja

There’s a scene in one of the episodes of the American version of The Office, where the character Ryan is using a smart phone during a pub quiz. This isn’t allowed, but he refuses to put it down, and it has to be taken away from him. As it’s taken away, Ryan tries to sit still but he can’t. He leaves his team saying, “I can’t not have my phone, I’m sorry. I want to be with my phone.”

The episode, in Season Eight, first aired in 2012, and I must have seen it a year or two later. I still remember that when I first watched it, I felt shocked at the thought that Ryan needed his device so badly, and felt sorry for someone who’d give themselves over to it like that. I watch The Office a lot, it’s like comfort food to me, and when I watch that scene today, it looks very different. In fact, it’s shocking to watch a smart phone being taken away from someone. Even at home, it’s often hard for me to be more than a couple of feet from mine. Back in 2013, I would often leave home without my phone, happy to be disconnected for a while. Today it’s almost unthinkable—what if I get lost? What if I need to search for something? What if I’m stuck in a line somewhere and bored?

Very occasionally, I do leave the phone at home—but only when we’re going somewhere nearby and when I’m sure that my wife has hers. There is an initial tug of anxiety as I check my pockets reflexively, and feel the stretch of elastic as I leave it and drive out of the gate. But after being away from it for about 10 minutes I feel a sense of relief. It’s not that my nose is buried in it all the time when it’s there—I do remember to look up at the world, and I do often put it away in my pocket and just sit and be me, but it isn’t long before it’s out again… hey just to check the time…

With the internet always on call and at hand, sometimes it’s startling for me to realise we already have a technological history here. I’m not just thinking about dial-up modems, but the fact that there’d be one computer in the house that everyone needed to use to check email or look things up on a search engine. That instead of giving your guests a wi-fi password, you’d show them to the messy desk where your computer was, and you’d have to negotiate keyboard time with everybody at home.

And though our screen time was precious and rationed, we all wrote each other long emails, sharing our thoughts and doings. Where did email go? I used to write to so many people, some of them several times a week. This number dwindled sharply, and then steadily, until it was down to two, and now it’s none.

While the arrival of email made some of us bemoan the loss of the analogue and personal touch of letter-writing, the underlying concept was unchanged. We still had the buffer of time let us gather thoughts, find depth, and toss the filler. It seems like we just don’t have the time any more for that, but surely that can’t be true? I think it’s my turn to write to the last of my emailing friends, but not only am I not finding time to write it, I’m also loath to load him with the guilt of having to reply.

First published in Gulf News, February 13, 2018