The Hamilton Spectator

There Is a Better Way to Do Email


There is no end of theories for why the internet feels so crummy these days. The New Yorker blames the shift to algorithmi­c feeds. Wired blames a cycle in which companies cease serving their users and begin monetizing them. The Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review blames ad-based business models. The Verge blames search engines. I agree with all these arguments. But here is another: Our digital lives have become one shame closet after another.

A shame closet is that spot in your home where you cram the stuff that has nowhere else to go. It does not have to be a closet. It can be a garage or a room or a chest of drawers or all of them at once. Whatever the space, it is defined by the absence of choices about what goes into it. There are things you need in there. There are things you will never need in there. But as the shame closet grows, the task of excavation or organizati­on becomes too daunting to contemplat­e.

The shame closet era of the internet had a beginning. It was 20 years ago that Google unveiled Gmail. If you were not an internet user back then, it is hard to describe the astonishme­nt that greeted Google’s announceme­nt. Inboxes routinely topped out at 15 megabytes. Google was offering a free gigabyte, dozens and dozens of times more. Everyone wanted in. But you had to be invited. I remember jockeying for one of those early invites. I remember the thrill of finding one. I felt lucky. I felt chosen.

A few months ago, I euthanized that Gmail account. I have more than a million unread messages in my inbox. Most of what is there is junk. But not all of it. I was missing too much that I needed to see. Search could not save me. I did not know what I was looking for. Google’s algorithms had begun failing me. What they thought was a priority and what I thought was a priority diverged. I set up an auto-responder telling anyone and everyone who emailed me that the address was dead.

Behind Gmail was an astonishin­g technologi­cal triumph. The cost of storage was collapsing. In 1985, a gigabyte of hard drive memory cost around $75,000. By 1995, it was around $750. Come 2004 — the year Gmail began — it was a few dollars. Today, it is less than a penny. Now Gmail offers 15 gigabytes free. What a marvel. What a mess.

Gmail’s promise — vast storage mediated by powerful search tools — became the promise of virtually everything online. According to iCloud, I have more than 23,000 photos and almost 2,000 videos resting somewhere on Apple’s servers. I have tens of thousands of songs liked somewhere in Spotify. How much is jotted down in my Notes app? How many conversati­ons do I have stored in Messages, in WhatsApp, in Signal, in Twitter and Instagram and Facebook DMs? There is so much I loved in those archives. There is so much I would delight in rediscover­ing. But I cannot find what matters in the morass. I have given up on trying.

What began with our files soon came for our friends and family. The social networks made it easy for anyone we have ever met, and plenty of people we never met, to friend and follow us. We could communicat­e with them all at once without communing with them individual­ly at all. Or so we were told. The idea that we could have so much community with so little effort was an illusion. We are digitally connected to more people than ever and terribly lonely neverthele­ss. Closeness requires time, and time has not fallen in cost or risen in quantity.

The digital giants profit off my passivity. I now pay Apple and Google a monthly fee for more storage. It would take too long to delete everything necessary to remain beneath their limits. Various algorithms attempt to do for me what I no longer do for myself. They present me with pictures from my past and offer to sell me books of my own memories. They serve me up songs that are like the ones I have loved before but lost long ago. My feed is stuffed with recommende­d content from influencer­s and advertiser­s who mean nothing to me.

A few months ago, I vowed to take back control of my digital life. I began with my email. I subscribed to Hey, an email service that takes a very different view of how email should work. Gmail and virtually all of its competitor­s assume anyone should be able to email you and then you should store and sort and search and categorize those messages. Hey assumes that only the people you want email from should be able to email you.

The first time anyone sends you a message, it goes into what is called the Screener, and you have to whitelist or blackball the sender. If you blackball the sender, that is it. You never see email from that address again. It also has another feature I love: a clean screen for replying to emails, so you can think and compose without the visual clutter common to so many other services.

Hey forces me to make choices rather than encourage me to avoid them. I constantly have to ask whether I want email from this or that sender, and if so, where it should go. Which is not to say Hey is perfect or even that it fully solves the problems I am describing. Its search is far inferior to Google’s. It is too hard to rediscover mail that I have viewed but took no action on. There is no way of sorting different kinds of mail that come from the same address. It has trouble threading long conversati­ons with many, many participan­ts. I miss the easy integratio­n with all the other Google products I need to use.

But for me, for now, the friction is what I am looking for. I am grateful — genuinely — for what Google and Apple and others did to make digital life easy over the past two decades. But too much ease carries a cost. I was lulled into the belief that I did not have to make decisions. Now my digital life is a series of monuments to the cost of combining maximal storage with minimal intention.

I have thousands of photos of my children but few that I have set aside to revisit. I have records of virtually every text I have sent since I was in college but no idea how to find the ones that meant something. I spent years blasting my thoughts to millions of people on X and Facebook even as I fell behind on correspond­ence with dear friends. I have stored everything and saved nothing.

I do not blame anyone but myself for this. This is not something the corporatio­ns did to me. This is something I did to myself. But I am looking now for software that insists I make choices rather than whispers that none are needed. I do not want my digital life to be one shame closet after another. A new metaphor has taken hold for me: I want it to be a garden I tend, snipping back the weeds and nourishing the plants.

Digital life has been made easy, but too much ease is costly.

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