What goes around comes around, if always a little faster.
Remember when we first started using email, back in the foggy depths of the twentieth century? The great thing about email, everyone said and everyone believed, was that it was an asynchronous communications medium. (Yes, that’s how we used to talk.) Email cured the perceived shortcomings of telephone calls, which dominated our work lives. The ring of your phone would butt into whatever you happened to be doing at that moment, and you had no choice but to answer the damn thing (it might be your boss or your client, after all), and then you had no choice but to respond immediately to whatever the person on the another end was saying or asking. The telephone was realtime and it was synchronous, and those were bad things. One of the major roles of the traditional secretary was to add a buffer to the endless stream of phone calls: paying someone to screen your calls was a kludgy way to make a synchronous medium act sort of like an asynchronous one.
When voicemail entered the scene, people cheered at first, but it actually only made matters worse. The phone became an even more demanding medium. The voicemail light was always blinking, and when you listened to a voicemail, you felt compelled to respond immediately. There was a reason we called it “voicemail hell.”
And don’t even get me started about conference calls.
Email delivered us from the telephone’s realtime stream. Suddenly, we controlled, individually, our main communications medium, rather than vice versa. We could choose when to read our email, and, more important, we could choose when to respond – and whom to respond to. The buffer was built into the technology. Even taking just a few minutes to think about a message often led to a more thoughtful response than an immediate, halfbaked phone reply. After email took hold in offices, you always had a few doofus laggards who continued to rely on the phone and voicemail. They were widely despised: synchronous dinosaurs lumbering through the pleasant pastures of asynchronous Internet communication.
But email also did something else, the consequences of which we didn’t fully foresee. It dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communication. You had to think at least a little bit before placing a phone call, not just because it might cost you a few cents but because you knew you were going to interrupt the other person. Is this really necessary, or can it wait? Email removed that calculation from the equation. Everything was worth an email. (As direct marketers and spammers also soon discovered.) And there was the wonderful CC field and the even more wonderful Reply All button. Broadcasting, cumbersome with the phone, became easy with email.
Goodbye voicemail hell. Welcome to email hell.
Turns out, we were mistaken about email all along. Asynchrony was never actually a good thing. It was simply an artifact of a paucity of bandwidth. Or so we’re told today, as the realtime stream – texts, tweets, Facebook updates – o’erbrims its banks, and out on the horizon rises the all-consuming Wave. In “Wave New World,” an article in the current edition of Time, Lev Grossman writes:
Keep in mind that until the mid-1990s, when e-mail went mainstream, the network environment was very different. Bandwidth was a scarce resource. You had your poky modem and liked it. Which is why e-mail was created in the image of the paper-postal system: tiny squirts of electronic text. But now we’re rolling in bandwidth … And yet we’re still passing one another little electronic notes. Google Wave rips up that paradigm and embraces the power of the networked, collaborative, postpaper world.
Jessica Vascellaro makes a similar point in heralding “the end of the email era” in today’s Wall Street Journal:
We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun. Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? [Email] seems boring compared to services like Google Wave.
The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.
This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.