"I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990,
when I no longer had an email address."
- Donald Knuth
In a typical year, I received approximately 20,000 email messages after SPAM-filtering has removed most of the junk. Since most messages arrive outside of weekends and holidays, this translates to a figure approaching 85 emails per weekday. Liberally estimating 15-20 of these as announcements, automated output (e.g., cron jobs), and unfiltered SPAM, this leaves approximately 65-70 legitimate messages that request some action, often requiring a response. In an uninterrupted session, each email message I send takes an average of 10 minutes of my time. You do the math.
When I originally wrote this page at the beginning of the millenium, I referred with dismay to the all-too common lineup for Internet access at academic conferences. This, of course, was soon supplanted by eyeballs glued to smartphones and tablets. Time marches on, but the all-consuming power of email (and texts, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, Slack, Signal, Discord, etc.) continues unabated. We check our devices constantly throughout the day, interrupting whatever we're doing at the beep or buzz of each new incoming communication, demanding our immediate attention, as the recipient has, by now, come to expect a reply within a matter of minutes, if not less.
Internet addiction isn't just a problem related to social media, on-line games, or smartphones. The interruption to our flow of thought from notifications of any form, and the associated effects of regular exposure to these omnipresent intermittent variable rewards (the Hook model) is rewiring our brains, and with it, inflicting health problems, and the associated devastating effects to society's intelligence. At least one country is waking up to the severity of the problem with respect to video game addiction, and mandating protective laws in response. But the problem is bigger than video games. Will any government actually consider laws requiring notifications to be disabled, so that we have a chance to make our own decisions as to when we will be interrupted?
Early in the millennium, I thought I could beat the pressure, and so, tried to adhere to a policy of checking my incoming email at most once per day, usually in the evening, and then turning it off. Unfortunately, I wasn't strong enough. The policy was a chimera. As I later learned, the same was true even for those tech leaders who were themselves engineering the tools of Internet addiction!
However, I recently reached the point of exhaustion, and with it, gained the strength to try again. I've turned off notifications, I'm doing a decent job of only checking email once a day, and am starting to do the same with every other messaging tool. I am not worried that I might miss the most important message in the world!
In addition, note that:
Last updated on 30 September 2021
by Jeremy Cooperstock