A World Without Email by Cal Newport

You have to forgive the click-bait title. Newport has been doing a stalwart job of exploring the precursors of productivity, and this is his latest attack on distractions such as email, Slack, and other messaging systems that interrupt our high-value cognitively-intense work.

Email is still The One True Universal Message Bus, and he is not arguing against that mechanism. Rather, he targets our defaults, eg. all email is in the inbox, and email clients run all the time with the annoyances of "You have Mail!" modern equivalents.

After re-iterating how bad interruptions are, Newport dives into the "protocols" he has for handling what would normally happen via email, eg. his hacks for status updates, scheduling, office-hours, etc.

The big problem with hacks like these is that he is forcing others to change. In addition to either being impolite or impolitic, it also means he is breaking the Robustness Principle ( aka Jon Postel's Law ):

be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

From a Computer Science-nerd perspective, this is a huge no-no. Newport may be able to work-around ad-hoc issues in his life, however this approach of making other people change before you see any benefits is highly unlikely to scale well.

Instead of trotting out Claude Shannon to buttress his arguments, he should have covered Norbert Wiener and some Control Theory.

Unless you actively condition your correspondents or your emails, your inbox is what Control Theory calls an "Open Loop". The classic example of an open control loop is a furnace thermostat that runs by time of day instead of ambient temperature; any unseasonably chill days will leave you freezing because "it's not time yet!" according to the thermostat.

One simple way to close the loop is to have your email client filter emails automatically to your "Todo" folder unless the sender is in an approved list (eg. boss, family, etc.)

Then periodically work through your "Todo" folder, just like you periodically review your "Spam" folder for missed emails. ( The BOFH rule is to just send all the non-boss, non-family emails to Spam. If someone complains, add them to the allowed list and tell them it went to your Spam folder. )

It's not like notifications, status updates, whatever are going to stop happening. We all just need ways to manage them. And I would rather have all those happen over The One True Universal Message Bus so that I can keep track of them all. ( How many balls have you dropped because the notification happened on some system that you were not polling regularly? )

From a History-nerd perspective, Newport really goes off the deep-end, likening email to the stirrup -- the advantage of which appears to have goaded Charles Martel into seizing Church lands and single-handedly creating feudalism in Europe.

This is the wrong model for email. Heavy cavalry that leveraged stirrups boils down to an Arms Race ( your heavy cavalry routs Lord A's, Lord B freaks out and puts more lands under feudal control so he has more heavy cavalry, neighboring Lord C freaks out ..., ad nauseum) This seems a sub-optimal model for email, ie. are we really going to freak out if our coworkers answer or send more email?

Of course not. A more optimal model would be gibbing or the Gutenberg press, as email lowers the costs of communication dramatically. Gibbing lowered the cost of protein in the winter and that incentivized cheap fast shipping between the fishing shoals and consumers, which paid for a Dutch navy, which built an empire. Likewise, the Gutenberg press made publishing cheaper; is Newport complaining about all the books that he will never read?

Of course not. He just needs to check his email less often already.