The Tyranny of E-mail | John Freeman

Summary of: The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox
By: John Freeman


In ‘The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox’, John Freeman uncovers the history of communication and its impact on society as well as individual lives. The book highlights the evolution of written communication, from ancient empires to today’s modern email system, and explains how the digital world has dramatically changed our communication habits and affected our cognitive abilities, relationships, and work lives. Throughout the book, readers will not only learn fascinating historical anecdotes about our ever-changing methods of reaching out to others but also gain valuable insights into the darker side of our dependence on email.

Masters of Information

Throughout history, powerful groups have used communication to exert control. The Catholic Church and governments were the primary dispensers of information for centuries. Empires used communication to consolidate power, with messages traveling at the speed of 100 miles per day as early as 600 BC in the Persian Empire. Sending mail was costly, and only 5-10% of the adult population in Britain could read or write in the year 1500. People also lacked fixed addresses, which made it hard for letters to end up in the right place. Access to long-distance communication only became widely available at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Evolution of Mail Services

Mail services were not always accessible to the common people, but with education reform and literacy campaigns, they became more widespread. The popularity of postcards grew quickly in the late 1800s, with some even calling it an “epidemic.” The British Royal Mail employed over 42,000 people and had over 12,000 offices by 1873. The US Congress even experimented with using camels to deliver mail. Mail became a regular part of people’s lives, with the average American sending 69 letters a year. People used mail for various purposes, including staying in touch with friends and family and even sending “nonsense” items to each other. Communication styles changed, with the first forms of online “flaming” appearing in 1871, and some people receiving early forms of spam as early as 1887.

The Telegraph’s Impact on Communication

The telegraph revolutionized communication, making faraway places accessible for the first time in history. It drastically reduced the time it took to send news, and enemies even started small talk with each other. However, the telegraph also brought on the first era of information overload, with people having unprecedented access to news and communication. William James coined the term Americanitis to describe the anxiety caused by the telegraph, as people feared missing out on something. Newspapers printed larger editions, covering news from all over the world, and started printing daily instead of weekly. Nevertheless, not everyone liked this development, as some felt it was becoming the voice of the world rather than a record of the community.

The Evolution of Communication

Email has revolutionized communication by making it faster, easier, and virtually free of cost. Before email, people had to write addresses manually and send them individually, while telegrams were costly. Despite the benefits of email, it has resulted in a constant barrage of messages and interruptions, leading to added stress and pressure to be constantly available.

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