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The oldest love poem in the world sits behind a glass case at the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, where it was placed on display on Valentine’s Day 2006. Carved in cuneiform, it rests on a clay tablet the size of a piece of toast, the script as small as bird tracks. “Bridegroom, you have taken pleasure of me,” the poet, a ghost lost to time, pleads in Sumerian. “You have captivated me: let me stand trembling before you.”

Love may not be forever, but this expression of it has outlasted swords forged by fire, cities designed by the finest architects, the largest machine ever to fly, and the most titanic boat ever to sail. To write his verse, the poet would have had to compose the lines in his head or recite them to a friend. Then he would have molded the clay tablet and slowly, but deliberately, carved his verse into it with a reed staff before the clay hardened. Finally, he would have dried the poem in the sun and waited another day for it to cool, when it could be delivered to his beloved by hand.

Feelings may not have a terminal velocity, but it should be said that certain expressions benefit from careful deliberation. Love is certainly one of them, but so is regret. So are longing, forgiveness, curiosity, and anger. Communication — the conveyance of meaning from one person to the next — depends on how we frame t. The second-most important question we must face, after choosing to communicate at all, becomes how to deliver what we want to say. Four thousand years after this poet bent over his writing desk, we have as many options as we have languages.

You can write your message in the sky, send it by singing telegram, speak into voice mail, shove it in the post, and hope for the best. You can write it in free verse, broadcast it to three hundred of your closest friends on Facebook, fire off an instant message, post it to your Twitter channel. If we think of modes of communication as a mirror spectrum of the human voice, we have as many registers as our mouths can make. The telex machine may have died, but most copy shops and offices still have fax machines. Phone booths still huddle, in various states of molestation, on many street corners. We can sign a message, pantomime it, text it, shoot a video message, record it as a song, upload a declaration of love onto YouTube, chalk it on pavement, scratch it on a tree trunk.

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that one of the most effective ways to send a message into the world is to wrap it in a form that only it can possess and give it away. Why buy a card when you can make one? Why sermonize when you can write a sonnet? But how many of us have the time for this — or the skill? All over the world we are working longer hours than ever, sleeping fewer winks, taking shorter vacations. In this environment, frazzled and fried, tied to a machine that gazes back at us more hours per day than even our spouses do, we do what makes the most sense: we send our messages the fastest way possible.

The Inbox of Kings

In June 2004, the Internet giant Google made an announcement that quietly marked the apotheosis of the e-mail age. Gmail, its Web-based mail program, would offer users unlimited storage. Imagine for a moment what this means. Thanks to a group of 450,000 machines scattered across the United States like underground missile bunkers, I could store more e-mails than there are blades of grass in Kansas. This is beyond unprecedented — it is superhuman. Is God’s inbox this big? Prior to the electronic age, dictators and kings did not enjoy such epistolary armories.

Still, their capacity is dwarfed by the Herculean arms of an everyday individual’s e-mail inbox today. What busy individual needs this industrial-strength capability for his correspondence tool? What buzzing, humming megalopolis tunes in to this techno-rave of send and receive, send and receive? Is the human brain wired to receive this much stimuli? Can our eyes scan this many separate pieces of information? Is anyone listening? Who is it behind the screens, tapping the bellows and pumping the organ keys of this huge, throbbing machine at all hours of the night?

For the Love of E-mail

The answer, of course, is us. We love e-mail. In 2007, 35 trillion messages shot back and forth between the world’s 1 billion PCs; in the time it took you to read to this point, some 300 million e-mails were sent and received. They sluiced down corporate drainpipes, piled onto listservs, promising a return on investment in a small African country and providing jokes about pigs and news about your grandmother’s heart surgery. According to a Stanford University survey, 90 percent of all Internet users e-mail. In 2009, it has been estimated, the average corporate worker will spend more than 40 percent of his or her day sending and receiving some two hundred messages. Instead of walking down the hall, picking up the phone, or sending an interoffice memo, we e-mail.

E-mail goes with us everywhere now. We check it on the subway, we check it in the bath. We check it before bed and upon waking up. We check it even in midconversation, blithely assuming that no one will notice. We check from our loved ones’ deathbeds. Even the most powerful people in the world do it. On most days during the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama’s BlackBerry “was fastened to his belt — to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign.” President George W. Bush, who received 15 thousand e-mails a day at the White House, said that one thing he looked forward to after leaving office was e-mailing. There is even a service that allows you to send an e-mail after you’re dead. If there is an hour or a minute or a second to spare, e-mail is there. It is our electronic fidget.

It’s hard to blame us. Once broadband connection arrived, e-mail became the world’s most convenient communication tool. Not much more than a dozen years ago, most of us printed letters out, placed them in envelopes, and then walked or drove them to the post office, where we waited in line, wasting more time, so that the letter could arrive in maybe a week. The U.S. Postal Service estimated that, even if 99.8 percent of e-mails do not replace a letter, the sheer volume of e-mail means that more than 2 billion pieces of mail are diverted electronically each year. And that’s just personal correspondence. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of people who opted to pay their bills electronically rather than by mail diverted 3 billion pieces of mail. In the postal world, this replacement of tangible mail with electronic communication is called electronic erosion — and some of this is a good thing. Today we can type a note on our computer in New York and it will be received in New Zealand in nanoseconds. We use e-mail to send documents, music, wills, photographs, spreadsheets, and floor plans, communicate with our banks, send invitations. We no longer have to fill out those irritating forms to receive a return receipt by post, proof that our important letter arrived. The computer does it for us. We can even get a message the moment someone opens our e-mail. In just this one area, e-mail has given us back several days each year.

But it would appear that we are spending that surplus time e-mailing. The average office worker sends and receives 200 e-mails a day — and that figure is rising. Forget about time spent stumbling absentmindedly around the Internet; this habit is destroying our ability to be productive. Information overload is a $650 billion drag on the U.S. economy every year. E-mail 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.

The form’s inherent blind spots always catch up with us. According to a survey in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we misunderstand the tone of e-mails 50 percent of the time — and for good reason: there is no face on the other end to stop us in midsentence, to indicate that what we are in the process of saying is rude, not comprehended, or cruel. We say what we want, like the CEO who recently belittled the effect of mortgage foreclosures, inadvertently sending the e-mail to someone who had just lost his home. The unlucky call this mistaken judgment. Psychologists call it disinhibition, and its pervasive effect — as can be witnessed every day in nasty comments appended to newspaper articles online, in the aggrieved tone and intent of some blog postings, in e-mail inboxes scorched by flame wars — has turned many parts of the Internet into a nasty place.

It’s tempting to simply argue that the Internet attracts aggressive people. But all of us, at some point or other, have behaved poorly over the Internet and via e-mail. There’s a reason for these communication hiccups and explosions. According to some neurologists, we learn to interact with the world by mirroring others; not only do we need to see people to understand them most effectively, but our mind learns how to move our limbs and make sense of the world by mirroring the actions of others. There are even neurons in our brain that fire only in response to mirroring the actions of others, and they are intimately connected with the parts of our brain that allow us to move and understand the world. The part of our brain that controls grasping motions shows heightened levels of neural activity when we see someone else pick up a glass of orange juice, as if we were doing it ourselves. According to Marco Iacoboni, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, this has bolstered the notion that “our mental processes are shaped by our bodies and by the types of perceptual and motor experiences that are the product of our movement through and interaction with the surrounding world.” Consider, then, the ramifications of an era of communication in which we are disembodied as never before. In our new context of e-mail overload, we are working in an environment in which there is nothing to mirror but our own words.

Beating Back the E-mail Tsunami

Who has time to think clearly when under assault by this tsunami of other people’s needs? That’s what it feels like when you turn on your computer first thing in the morning at the office and find 50 e-mails, the tide of your inbox always rising. One’s instinct is to beat it back because e-mail has reoriented time; communication that once took hours, days, minutes, now takes seconds, and the permitted reply time has shrunk as well. Let an e-mail linger for a day, and you risk a rift in a relationship. A 2006 Cisco research paper concluded that failing to respond to a sender can lead to a swift breakdown in trust. Lose an e-mail forever, and you are sitting on an unexploded land mine.

In the past, only a few professions — doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers — required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now almost all of us live this way. Everything must be attended to — and if it isn’t, chances are another e-mail will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all.

In the face of this ever-rising onslaught, there appear to be just two choices: keep up at all costs or put up a moat, declare oneself unreachable for the time being — and start all over again.
E-mail bankruptcy is the communication subprime mortgage crisis of our era. Ironically, among the first to declare this were the Internet visionaries, such as Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, who believes that computer code will or can regulate our world as legal code has done in other realms of life. “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy,” he wrote in the summer of 2004. With one quick message, Lessig’s correspondents who were waiting for replies became his epistolary creditors, and he pleaded with them just as a bankrupt man does with his lenders. “That’s not a promise of a quick response,” he continued after five paragraphs. “But it is a promise that I will try.” Ironically, his plea for a reprieve generated a “torrent” of new e-mail.

In the beginning, this type of e-mailer — the tech-savvy fellow who sent and received a few hundred e-mails a day — was called a “power user,” who took technology and made the most of it. Now every white-collar employee is expected to be one. Not surprisingly, workshops and office coaches will tell you the problem isn’t the technology or even the work ethic — it’s ourselves. We have bad habits; we reply to all; we waste time treating e-mail as if it were an instant message tool, asking open-ended questions — “How are you doing?” — in the middle of the day. Get it together. You can keep up if you try. But is this really possible when most of us have a water cooler inside our computer surrounded by five thousand people, all talking at once?

In the Western and well-to-do parts of the world, in offices in Dubai and Duluth and Dunkirk, the world’s workers are typing themselves into a corner, ever farther out of touch with people beyond their sphere. Walk down a corridor in many companies, and it is eerily silent. You might think it was Christmas morning. In some places, all you hear is the ambient hum of the central air-conditioning unit, the creak of Aeron chairs, the cricketlike click of the mouse, and the faint clatter of keystrokes. But if you lean into cubicles or peer between doorways, you will see hunched, tense figures at their computers frantically trying to keep up with their inboxes. Interrupt them, and you will find their expressions glazed, their eyes dried out and weary. Their keyboard has become a messaging conveyor belt — and there is no break time.

This electronic conversational buzzing has become so loud, it’s easy to forget there are people who are not taking part in it. To e-mail one has to be literate, have access to a machine, and be connected. The world’s netizen population is approaching 2 billion, but this means only one-third of us are taking part in this enormously useful, endlessly irritating tool. Technology, so often assumed to be the cure for the world’s inequalities, has once again simply transplanted them into a new space where English has become the new superlanguage. Africa may be home to 14 percent of the world’s population, but it accounts for just 3 percent of the earth’s Internet users.

Becoming the Machine

In 1900, Henry Adams, the grandson of a U.S. president and one of his age’s most observant historians, visited the Paris World’s Fair and had many of his suspicions of the future confirmed. Standing before a Corliss steam engine, Adams witnessed the demolition of human narrative, of human scale. Powered by dynamos, huffing away without a single human hand touching its controls, the engine was an enormous testament to the will to power of technology. “Between the dynamo in the gallery of machines outside and the engine house outside,” Adams wrote in The Education of Henry Adams, “the break in continuity amounted to abysmal fracture.” In other words, in this one machine Adams saw how energy that originally would have come from human beings had been replaced by something insentient, a thing that would run itself with no input from human hands except in its creation.

In the twenty-first century, those of us who work in offices have crawled inside the dynamos, the machines driving the system; we’re keeping it spinning one electronic message at a time. This symbiotic embrace with the machine is something the early pioneers of the computing age hoped for. J. C. R. Licklidder, a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the first director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, summed up these hopes in a prescient early paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis”: “The hope,” he wrote, “is that in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled…tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Fifty years on, that day seems to be here. To read an e-mail, you must be joined to an electronic machine. What does this machine want? Besides following our commands, it is a machine deeply, fundamentally connected to commerce. More often than anything else, it wants us to work. The new on-the-ball employee proves his worth by his speed of response — at work, at night, on the weekends, on vacations, the instant the announcement is made that it is now safe to use approved electronic devices on airplanes.

This ethic of being “always on” extends to the home, where it acquires a consumerist dimension. Web-based e-mail, which is used by more than 1 billion people worldwide, remains free because it allows host companies — such as Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft — to deliver advertising messages to people refreshing their inbox screen. Every time your screen reloads, a cluster of messages and graphics coalesces in the margins, blinking and beckoning. It frames what you are about to write or read. We are approaching a world in which every letter we write home, every love poem we read, every condolence note, political petition, and letter of apology we type is framed by a penumbra of automobile ads, perfume pitches, entreaties to enter online gambling emporiums.

Faster, Faster

Speed — the god of the twenty-first century — is not a neutral deity, as it turns out. The speed at which we communicate determines what we can do, what we can see, how we perceive, and whether we can adjust our own sense of reality to a larger, more complex frame of reference, one that encompasses the separate needs and points of view of others. Look out a window of a train traveling at full speed, and you will witness this phenomenon at work. The eye constantly darts to the horizon, only to be overwhelmed by a new horizon point, which comes racing forward, followed by another and another. The eye quickly becomes fatigued. The scenery is a blur.

Working at the speed of e-mail is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train — and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every 30 seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The e-mail inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest — there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels — via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, instant message — and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand e-mails still sitting in our inbox.

We’re not lazy; the computer is just far better than the human mind at batching and sorting. E-mail travels to and from computers circuitously, starting with our fingers, which type the characters. Our jokes and jabs are eventually translated into 0s and 1s, fired off through cable and phone lines, and reassembled upon the point of arrival, not unlike a car that has been shipped to the United States from Japan in pieces and assembled there once all the parts have arrived at the port and been sent by train to assembly plants, as one technology writer once put it. Computers and e-mail software are designed to know which parts of the chains belong to which; they can wait for a message to arrive fully before delivering it, and they can do so on a scale that is suprahuman. The computer is the ultimate multitasker — it doesn’t need to pause to write down reminders to itself on a yellow Post-it note. It doesn’t have emotional needs. It doesn’t have days when it is depressed. It needn’t touch a single thing to feel
okay about doing its job.

Look into My Eyes

Don’t try this argument out on an Internet visionary. The World Wide Web is often described as the biggest invention aiding human knowledge since the printing press. This may be overblown, since it is impossible to judge at this point — maybe nanotechnology will surpass it, or bioengineering, or battery technology? One thing, however, is clear: the Internet has effected one enormous change in our day-to-day life as it relates to reading, a change so large, but so all encompassing, that we don’t notice it — until we step outside.

Since the beginning of time, humans have read by reflected light. This gave reading a sacredness — light, after all, is the first thing God creates in the Bible. In the Koran, “God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.” Light is a fundamental feature of nearly all founding myths. In Greek mythology, Hyperion, the Titan god of light, is the son of Ourans (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). In “The Kingdom of the Dead,” the gloomiest chapter of Homer’s Odyssey, his hero washes ashore in a place so wretched that “the Eye of the Sun can never flash his rays through the dark and bring them light.” We read to come out of the darkness and into the light.

Before electric light, reading meant sitting by a window or in a room open to sunbeams, or near a candle after dark. Read outside on a park bench in decent weather, and you will realize how natural this feels. The eye is designed for this kind of light, and our chemical response to it regulates our sleep and our moods, gives our days a natural rhythm. Electric light did not change this equation fundamentally. A bank employee might have to read ledgers under a harsher light, a reporter might sit and type a story before a single bulb, but the light they worked by was still reflected, the light glancing down onto the page and bouncing back up into their eyes, at which point the mind can begin to process what’s on the page.

The computer screen, however, is an entirely new reading experience. Rather than bouncing down off a surface, light is shot directly into our eyes. It is beamed right into our pupils, and our eyeballs get drier and drier as our blink rate decreases. In the days when computers were used for just word processing, this was not an overwhelming burden. Back then we still read the news and memos and mail in print, by reflected light. But once the Web became so immense it could house large, important sources of information — the home of newspapers, banks, and shopping malls — that were accessed daily, sometimes hourly, the equation changed. And with e-mail, which is checked minute to minute by a great many, that equation
exploded. All day long, light is being beamed into our eyes.

Not surprisingly, this accelerating change in how we read has enormous physical and behavioral consequences. Eyesight has deteriorated with the ages, but it has taken a large leap back during the computer age due to the fact that people spend big chunks of their day focusing on a screen that is two feet in front of their faces. There are even nearsightedness epidemics among children. In Singapore, for instance, 80 percent of children are myopic, up from 25 percent just 30 years ago. Close study of books, but also computers and video games, is thought to be to blame.

Our eyes are tired, we get headaches, yet we cannot look away from the screen. E-mail is addictive, it has been shown, in the same way that slot machines are addictive. You press the send/receive button just as a gambler pulls down a slot machine lever, because you know that you will receive a reward (mail/a payout) some of the time. The best way to increase the chance of a reward is to press “Send” a lot. In one study, participants manually checked their e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour.

Brave New World — The Lonely Crowd

This shift — the replacement of actual human interaction by a kind of agitated virtual communication, the privileging of the eye above all else — is part of a larger change in our society in which the image has replaced the real thing. We don’t stand before art and experience its mysterious aura (as Walter Benjamin discussed in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) but download its image, buy a poster of it, take home a coffee cup covered with Matisse’s goldfish. As Susan Sontag noted in On Photography, we cannot travel and be tourists without ferrying home images of the place we have visited — as if the purpose of the trip were the collection of the images, not the being there. Brands exist for this reason. Unable to personally see the tailors or, more typically, the sweatshop labor that goes into making products, we are taught how to identify a brand and its logo with particular traits we prize: Audi’s linked circles are the mark of engineering precision; Starbucks’ cup goddess is proof that a multinational coffee chain has bohemian roots.

When we are pummeled by ads, awash in representations of the world, is it any surprise that the real-world commons — a shared space in which people of all sorts can meet and interact — has been shunted aside for its electronic simulacra? Instead of driving down the road to our local bookstore, where we might actually talk to someone, we buy a book over or; rather than go into the bank, we check our balance from home; rather than buy the newspaper from a paperboy who comes to collect the monthly bill, we read it online, for free. These are all conveniences, significant ones for the busy, for people who live in remote locations, or for people for whom face-to-face conversation is inordinately stressful, but the upshot is that we spend less time dealing face-to-face with other human beings and more time before a machine.

Thirty years ago, in The Society of the Spectacle, the French philosopher Guy Debord predicted we would be spending more time apart. “The reigning economic system is founded on isolation,” he wrote. “At the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as weapons for that system, as it strives to reinforce the isolation of ‘the lonely crowd.’ ” To this list of machines we can now also add the Internet and e-mail.

Ironically, tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend even more time apart.

The most glaring discovery of the Stanford University study mentioned earlier was not that people burned up two hours a day on the Internet but that those two hours came out of time they would normally spend with family and friends. Once that withdrawal has begun and technology has been identified as a way to connect, it’s a hard cycle to break. We blog, broadcast our vacations on YouTube, obsessively update the newsfeeds of our Facebook pages —“Today, Brian is feeling happy” — as if an experience, an emotion, a task completed hasn’t actually happened unless it has been recorded and shared with others. E-mail is the biggest, broadest highway on which this outward projection occurs. Why write a postcard about your trip to France to one friend when you can simply forward and copy the message to all your friends? Why tell a coworker you have performed an arduous piece of labor when you can cc several others and make sure they know it, too?

In the twenty-first century, writing and “publishing” have become easier than ever — and reading, due to the amount of material available to read and the rate at which we are communicating, has become harder than ever. This wouldn’t be quite so untenable an environment if we were actually seeing each other face-to-face. But the drop in face-to-face contact has taken this epistemological fracture and given it an emotional dimension. We have all the tools in the world, yet we’ve never felt more alone. By depriving ourselves of facial expressions and the tangible frisson of physical contact, we are facing a terrible loss of meaning in individual life. The difference between a smiley face and an actual smile is too large to calculate. Nothing — especially “lol” — can quite convey the sound of a friend’s laughter.

Talking Back

On a small scale, perhaps this model of frenzied communication would work. Think of a house in which six roommates share everything and anything and the closeness this fosters. But ironically, due to the networked, interlinked nature of the Internet and the way it grows virally, exponentially, this constant chatter is utterly unsustainable. The creeping tyranny of e-mail is a symptom of how out of control the situation has become and it is only going to get worse as more and more people around the world get broadband and e-mail accounts, and multinational companies, which rely on workers in different parts of the globe staying in touch, expand and put down even larger global footprints in the real world, not to mention in the cloud of machines connected to the Internet. We are at the beginning, not the end, of this problem.

The tyranny of e-mail has also entered a feedback cycle that makes it ever harder to reflect on how bad the situation has become. Spending our days communicating through this medium, which by virtue of its sheer volume forces us to talk in short bursts, we are slowly eroding our ability to explain — in a careful, complex way — why it is so wrong for us and to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable. This book is an attempt to slow things down for a moment so we can look at the enormous shift in time and space e-mail has effected, how e-mail has changed our lives, our culture and workplace, our psychological well-being. No one can predict the future of a technology, and this book is certainly not going to try, but it is essential, especially when that technology has become as prevalent and pervasive as e-mail, to examine its effects and assumptions and make an attempt to understand it in a broader context.

We are evidently remaking our environment, so it’s fair to ask: What does this new world look like? What are its roots? How does the technology upon which it runs affect what we can say or how we say it? Should we have a correspondence list in the thousands? Does this way of living seem natural or even sustainable? Surrounded by the plastics, polystyrenes, and chemicals of the modern workplace, our bodies have an instinctual memory of something more natural. This metaphysical nostalgia, which Alan Weisman beautifully describes in The World Without Us, is a source of profound anxiety, and not the kind that can be medicated or wrested into submission. Speed cannot mask this anxiety, either; it only destroys our ability to reconnect with something actual.

Ever since humans emerged from Plato’s cave, we have tried to communicate with each other. Sounds turned into pictures, which turned into phonetics, which were eventually written down and codified, printed on clay, then parchment, then on paper. Mail has existed since at least the ninth century in Persia. The printing press allowed a person to address a multitude without being there to say it to them (or copy it by hand). It took hundreds of years, however, for books to become widely accessible. And it took yet more time for those books and newspapers and letters to be shipped from one city or continent to the next. And then societies had to help their citizens become literate for these publications to be read in large numbers.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, we leapt from the speed of transport to the speed of electricity. The telegram allowed people to address each other one to one, within a day, at a price so cheap it eclipsed that of the long-distance phone call. Twenty million telegrams were sent in 1929 alone, this when the world’s population was 1.5 billion. Today, the world is home to 6 billion people and roughly 600 million e-mails are sent every ten minutes. Stop for a moment to imagine the ramifications of this exponential increase in communication, and the necessity for a pause cries out like an air-raid siren.

Previous generations, however giddy they became about the best technology, did stop and think — if briefly. Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegram to go through in the United States, from Washington to Baltimore, in May 1844, with the message WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT. By contrast, the first e-mail ever sent using the @ symbol was mailed from one supercomputer to the next in all caps, and according to Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent it, the message contained just a random series of letters and numbers. In other words: gibberish. He just wanted to see if it would arrive and so didn’t bother to type anything providential.

It’s about time we asked ourselves a more articulate question: What have we wrought? To answer it, we’re going to have to go back a long way, not just to the dawn of the first information age, when people first began communicating at the speed of electricity, but even further, to when people the world over were just beginning to get mail, and see what happened when the dream of obliterating distance started to become reality.

The first three chapters of this book make up a brief, selective history of how we went from reed stylus to silicon computer chip. At each step of the way, the new manner in which words moved over space introduced a new experience of reality, one that gradually built up to an experience of overload. The democratization of words through education and mail unleashed a blizzard of letters; no longer were they written and read only by a few. The creation of the telegram linked the world by a wire, and the people at home reading newspapers, expanded by telegraphic reports, suddenly had to — like operators for Western Union — tell signal from noise in an entirely different news environment. The creation of the Internet and the PC simultaneously made every inbox a telegram portal of a late-twentieth-century sort; it finally brought about the dream of obliterating distance.

All these developments have brought us to where we are today; in each period governments and crooks have attempted to stay one step ahead of the curve to exploit the increased amount of human traffic going over roads, wires, or T1 cables. Each communication breakthrough has encouraged individuality while expanding the notion of the commons beyond the tangible or nearby.

But for many of us the creation of the Internet has done one thing none of these leaps forward in communication history could: It has tied us irrevocably, perhaps fatally, to a machine and its superhuman capability. If we are to understand our predicament today, we must reckon with the changes that working at this machine has wrought and examine whether there is a way we can slow down, so we can make the best use of it while retaining a foothold in the real-world commons. Otherwise, we will have bridged the darkness only to introduce ourselves into one of another, more relentless kind.