Book Review

A self-help manual for electronic overkill

By Michael Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2009

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We are becoming more and more wrapped up in technology. Admit it: You’ve felt the foot of Facebook upon you, beating you down with its endless status reports. You’ve shared too much information on Twitter, had your best hours stolen from you by World of Warcraft, sat mesmerized before YouTube. Do you even notice how you’re becoming addicted to and enslaved by these digital oppressors?

John Freeman does. He particularly notes the scourge of electronic mail. As he writes in “The Tyranny of E-mail,’’ it “has made us a workforce of reactors, racing to keep up with a treadmill pace that is bound for burnout and breakdown and profound anger.’’ He stands convinced that e-mail is increasingly discouraging the development of complex and nuanced thinking as well as taking the place of direct human contact.

Freeman swears he is no Luddite, and indeed, he sounds more like a man betrayed. He thinks using e-mail to do much more than send short, focused missives amounts to a societal ill. His personal subjugation to e-mail led him to write what is on some level an elegant self-help book. He has developed a kind of 12-step program to eliminate destructive electronic habits. He includes ideas like scheduling media-free time and only replying to an e-mail after reading and considering the whole thing as opposed to feeling obliged to respond as fast as possible.

But “Tyranny’’ is more than a self-help manual. It also stands as Freeman’s “Manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement.’’

The book’s strength comes in part from this broader conceit. Freeman, a literary critic, uses lush prose and invokes examples from great literature to make his points. He comes at things not from a giddy utopian perspective that permeates most writing about technology but from a humanist one. It makes the book refreshing and powerful.

He starts off by offering a short history of written communication. He gives us a loving history of the letter, noting that in past centuries letters seemed as important to us as e-mails do now. But with the advent of the telegram in the 19th century came fears of information overload. He basically argues that as new forms of communication technology arise cultural concerns tend to follow. Telegrams obviously did not bring about the fall of Western civilization. Why then is e-mail any worse?

Speed, mainly, and volume. We sent 35 trillion e-mails in 2007. We are expected to always respond upon receipt, a laughable thing even for people who are addicted to their smart phones. Freeman portrays the Internet as a kind of mock monster, a “surrogate brain,’’ terrorizing us with its incessant need for our attention. The Internet, he writes, “has tied us irrevocably, perhaps fatally, to a machine and its superhuman capability.’’

His occasionally overwrought points sometimes detract from a well-written, literate, and practical argument. He quite sensibly points out that “the convenience and speed of the Internet have drawn us powerfully into a virtual world in which distance appears not to matter. At the end of the day, though, we need to live in the physical world.’’ He frets that “participating in and keeping up with these media has given birth to the most politically and culturally passive generation the world has ever seen.’’

In the end Freeman makes a good case. Whether he can pull us away from our screens long enough to notice is another story.

Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Millis.

THE TYRANNY OF E-MAIL: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox By John Freeman

Scribner, 256 pp., $25

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