Review: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload by Cal Newport
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As someone with a good critical grasp of technology, Newport's latest book felt like a great disappointment and a case where he misses the point significantly to a degree that can feel negligent. His argument is that email is one of the primary sources of inefficiency in work and while it served a purpose at one point, it has been a detriment to productivity at work. He spends the first half of the book trying to prove this point that email is the problem. For the second half, he spends a lot of time identifying other tools (Trello, Kanbans, and other project management software) within particular case studies to show how they are doing well without or with little email. In the end, he has a technodeterminist approach that would have us believe that eliminating email will make us much happier and much more productive at work--it's the technology, stupid.

There are many limitations in his thinking and argument. For instance, he keeps telling us that email works against our evolutionary nature (whatever that actually means) but somehow, ignores that all knowledge work, particularly at computers in artificial lighting for 8+ hours a day is also against said nature. But the fundamental flaw is that his primary argument is that email isn't productive and therefore should go. He shows little actual evidence that humans in the age of email have become less productive (some research shows it's actually the reverse, we've become more productive in knowledge work than ever before) and the fact that knowledge-work companies continue to thrive and grow large the economy would seem to indicate otherwise. His points of reference for claiming less productivity are faulty at best (e.g. he claims he's less productive as an academic than his father--yet scholarship productivity is significantly more productive as a field).

In the end, what sours me on this book is that he never questions that it's the ceaseless expectations put upon knowledge workers in the name of productivity and profit that are the actual problems, and trading in emails for Trello boards and the like is largely a meaningless difference. That is, once all companies switch over to Newport's new methods, it does not mean that there will be a break or space for employees to breathe. If actually successful at being more productive, it would only mean fiercer competition and thus, in 20 years, Newport will get to write another book on a world without Trello. This blindness to the mechanisms of industry and capitalism leads me to believe this is a great book for him to get another tour and TED Talk; to be a book recommended to lots of CEOs and given to many employees (this is how you fix your problems that we created), but it is not a book that actually helps the problem that he's looking at. It's not the technology; it's the economy, stupid.

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