A World without Email: Initial Reactions

As I am reading the new book A World without Email by Cal Newport, I cannot help but thinking about the neoliberal self-help undertone of the book. The book’s premise is that our way of work communication is deeply broken, and in order to increase work productivity, we should change this emailing system. Besides, the book’s various big claims without any evidence such as emailing has stalled America’s GDP growth rate has given me many cringes. The book falls into the self-governing genre, or the idea of self-governance if there’s a problem. This idea is akin to Facebook’s attempt to self-govern hate-speech, harassment, misinformation, and porn. Third party’s involvement in making sure that Facebook is held accountable is irrelevant. I value that the book indeed points out an important workplace communication problem, which is emailing. However, the explanation, and the possible solutions that the book proposes are alarming to me. The goal of the book is to help knowledge workers unlock productivity. In other words, if you follow the book’s advice, you will be more productive. Read: produce more outputs in a shorter amount of time. The goal of the book is not to help knowledge workers to figure out work/life balance, and get back to the managers and say that it’s way too much, and you’ve gotta stop.

Even though the book never self-claims that it’s a research book, it is definitely filled with social science research, mostly coming from psychology. This is a strength of Cal Newport’s writing. He’s able to summarize a vast amount of literature, and makes academic literature read-able to the wider public. Well yes psychology and organization psychology in particularly has been obsessed with the idea of how one could self-govern, and self-improve to increase organizational productivity. The field definitely embodies the modern science of governmentality, a term that Foucault coined. In a capitalist society, in our case now more like a neoliberal society, one has to self-govern to fit its goal. In the classical capitalism, workers need to be on time, and clock in the appropriate number of hours to fit its production goals. In the neoliberal society, everyone is an entrepreneur. They should take risks, and achieve financial fulfillment while also having an authentic sense of self. In the current incarnation of neoliberalism whereby knowledge workers such as AI researchers, ML engineers, academics, and journalists are delivering more valuable outputs for society, their ways of working should be scrutinized. And of course, there’s a way to fix their supposedly “broken way of working.” There are more hours to squeeze in for them to produce more knowledge work.

The book sometimes lacks the “epistemological humility” if it is a research book. At one point in the introduction, the book posits that probably email is the reason why American GDP growth rate has been stalled in the past three decades. This is a totally unsubstantiated idea without any data and real evidence to back up. Connecting GDP growth to the cause of email as a mechanism is totally a wild conjecture. Maybe there’s some evidence to suggest this idea at a firm level, which I highly doubt. Projecting this idea on an economy level is simply not true, and dangerous.

On the one hand, I appreciate Newport’s well written analysis of how emailing interferes with one’s ability to do “deep work.” As an academic, I acknowledge that emailing does get in the way my brain works. Sociologists of technology and work have also written about how communications tools such as cell phone and email have affected workers’ subjectivity, concentration, and interfered into their personal lives. Most sociological research shows that these communications tools are way to squeeze more productivity out of workers without much successful large-scale resistance strategies. In other words, workers are entering in a rat race, and feeling burned out over time. On the other hand, I think he totally misses the entire political economy of how knowledge workers currently work. Maybe cutting down on email is an option for a professor with tenure (such as himself), a software engineer with a 6-figure salary. It’s not an option for an adjunct (like myself), or a freelance journalist (such as the majority of journalists), or podcast editors (such as most professional podcast editors).

Knowledge workers mean many different categories in this current world, and the type of workers that Cal Newport talks about are the few that have the luxury of full-time work, and not having to worry about where their next gig is. In other words, Newport writes for the privilege few whose jobs are not yet affected by the gigification of the economy. Knowledge gig workers such as freelance graphic designers have Upwork and Fiverr to work as their main platforms to find gigs. While it’s true that their work requires concentration, it’s also true that most of their “work” hours are spent on finding another gig. They have to be “always on” if they want to get a request from another work “requester.” Their boss will not wait if they do not respond to the on-demand request immediately. Similarly, freelance journalists’ work hours are not only in writing an important investigative piece, but spending almost the same number of hours to pitch the idea to news organizations that would constantly bid down their price per piece, thus make them work even longer hours.

What is dangerous about what Cal Newport suggests is that only our way of working is broken, our economy and how the work structure is designed is completely flawless. I call this “aspirational neoliberal thinking.” If you can think and work like the winners of this knowledge economy, you will come out at the end successful. The entire background of full-time jobs disappearing is irrelevant in Newport’s increasing productivity discussion. Put it simply, the picture that he is painting is that if you have a job, be ultra-productive with or without email. If you don’t have a job, it’s also ok to not have emails and be productive. This book fits into the dominant narrative of American society: productivity is important, and we should all strive to be productive all the time. The book serves to validate the dominant self-governing ideology and disregards structural issues such as unionization, automation, labor law, compensations, and workers’ bargaining power.

At one point in the book Newport cites an example of an American academic couple who spent a short amount of time in Germany then came back to the US. They described their work time in Germany as “leisurely,” taking long lunch breaks walking around the campus which has a castle on it. They romanticized their time in Germany and attributed their feeling good time in Germany as not having emails. This recounting of a story again totally misses the entire work, organization, and cultural structure of Germany that separates work/life, and leave workers (in this case tenured academic workers) with a lot of bargaining power. In other words, the retelling of the story is relatively naive, and missing a lot of the causal factors that actually shape how a worker feels at work. Emailing is not the only reason that an American knowledge worker feels burned out. Emailing is one of the many ways that shape American workers’ subjectivity at work and outside of work hours. The underlying issue is that they have less power relative to capital owners, who are increasingly relying on technology to monitor, and extract their labor. Legal systems, organization work culture, and even self-help books are reinforcing, and upholding this existing power structure that makes the worker feel like they have to work more to get more out of their knowledge. But the question is to what end?

I am still reading the book. Once I finish the book, I will write another follow up about whether the framework espoused in this book actually works, or whether the book is another self-help book that valorizes the self-governing productivity ideology, and helps cement a toxic work structure and culture that suggests that workers burnout problem is their own problem. Why burnout not a medical condition whereby workers can legally take paid days off? Why it’s either super productive and burnt out, or quitting your job? Why workers have to choose between being super productive or not having a job at all?

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