Recommended public writing: Cal Newport on email

My recommended piece of public writing is “Email is Making Us Miserable,” a Feb. 26 New Yorker article written by Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport. Professor Newport, in addition to his computer science expertise and his faculty responsibilities, has also established himself as a popular nonfiction writer in the past decade who addresses the general public on topics related to digital tech and culture, including digital information overload, personal productivity strategies and the need for “deep work” and “digital minimalism,” and in his latest book, the need for “A World Without Email.” I have read one of his previous books–“Digital Minimalism”–and also subscribe to his weekly newsletter, which includes links to his frequent blog posts that often offer a quick overview of his longer articles and books on said digital tech x culture topics (i.e., he offers a lot of different types of public writing!). I recommend Prof Newport’s New Yorker article because it serves as an engaging and cogent example of his writing style and the topics he typically writes about–i.e., the ways in which 24/7 digital communication tools like email and slack, which in theory make our work lives easier because they substitute for meetings and IRL desk visits (pre COVID of course), actually make us, the knowledge worker population, feel significantly more overloaded, anxious, and distracted than ever before.

The following quote from the piece is just one good example of Newport’s style: “To return to our motivating question, there are many reasons why e-mail makes us miserable. It creates, for example, a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively. We’re also, it turns out, really bad at communicating clearly through a purely written medium—all kinds of nuances are lost, especially sarcasm, which leads to frustrating misunderstandings and confused exchanges. But lurking beneath these surface depredations is a more fundamental concern. The sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional e-mail directly conflicts with our ancient social circuits. We’re miserable, in other words, because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.”

As shown above, he does a great job of synthesizing complex psychological and sociocultural forces into easy-to-understand, engaging writing that almost any member of the general public would likely understand and enjoy. I think this piece is worth reading because it demonstrates a lot of “public writing best practices” while also introducing a fascinating and highly relevant topic–we all agree that email is making us miserable, but why is that the case and what can we do to change that?

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