Think of this as Volume 11, Number 36 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
After 25 years online, with more-and-more ways to communicate interactively being found each day, it gets harder-and-harder to actually communicate. (Picture from Steve Kay.)
Take e-mail. Please. A-Clue.Com started life as an e-mail newsletter. I just spent 20 minutes clearing out 24 hours worth of junk via Mailwasher. And what I came out with, after all that, was mainly semi-junk. Even after a mass clearing of e-mails from my work and my favorite mailing list, most of them unread, I am still left with a pile that I can hardly get to.
Each "real" e-mail -- often an invitation to an interview or a news release -- takes several minutes to read and respond to cogently. I don't have that many minutes. So a lot of that legitimate e-mail itself goes unread, or is read too late for me to do much with it.
Instead I have lately spent increased amounts of my time looking at RSS feeds. I can skip over items I'm not interested in, but even after I read just the ones I am interested in hours may have passed, and work may not have gotten done.
Our family now has four phones, all wireless. The bills are similar to what we formerly paid for two phones (including one wireless account) and long distance. With wireless, long distance is actually included at no charge -- a domestic minute is a domestic minute. Those who face a lot of international calls, I notice, or who just like to make tons of long distance calls use Skype.
This makes services like Caller ID meaningless. If I don't see a number displayed on an incoming call I can't ignore it -- I have a close friend who uses Skype, and some international sources rely upon it as well.
Calls also take time out of my day. I have a good friend in Texas who likes to bend my ear. He's good to talk to. But I look up afterward and a full hour has gone by, with no work done, but with a kind request from my friend that I instead spend time reading something, responding to something, or sending out an e-mail.
As we get older time becomes increasingly precious. I husband my time awake, my time alert, the few hours I get to write things like this. There are fewer-and-fewer of them in each day as we age, no matter what we do to stop it. I exercise like a demon but what once left me feeling refreshed now leaves me tired.
Time is precious to all of us. It's the most vital resource we have. That is the most important truth of our time.
This can make the Internet Generation seem prematurely old. Both my kids, one 17, one 20, now have a great solution for this communications overload. They turn their phones off. The son concentrates on interactive gaming, and has created a phony e-mail account (which he never uses) for the purpose. The daughter also likes games, but also spends hours each day writing. Both use their computers mainly for education, and are far less prone to multi-task than I was at their age. They remind me, both of them, of my parents' generation, or what I imagine that generation to have been. Committed, grateful, focused, much more Mickey Rooney (as Andy Hardy) than Mick Jagger.
I wish I could offer some tips here to make your own day more productive. I know that I now answer many messages from within Mailwasher. The tiny percentage of the tiny percentage of subject lines and "from" lines that I know must be responded to, get responded to. The rest?
Well, A-Clue.Com is no longer an e-mail newsletter for many reasons. But this is the most important. If you want to read something, you should go out and read it. You should force yourself to make some effort -- perhaps subscribing to it, perhaps getting the RSS, perhaps just giving it a click. Your attention is a precious thing, too precious to waste, and what little I earn here I treasure, even more than I treasured the thousands of names on my old lists.
The danger in all this is that the great beautiful online world I first enjoyed 20 years ago is closing in on me. That is, I have fewer-and-fewer foreign correspondents. It's easy to see from the usage statistics on my blogs -- we're all getting narrower-and-narrower in our focus, as the online world around us explodes in size we have mental room for just what is immediately around us.
The great online opportunities of our time are those which can focus us on what turns out to be important to us. Cutting that time gap between turning on the browser and getting to what we want. Cutting that time gap between collecting our e-mail and responding to that one message we need. Cutting that time gap between being communicated to, and communicating something back.
If you have followed this thread to its end there are probably 5 minutes you will never get back. What have you learned? Hopefully that you're not alone, that you're not going crazy if you can't read all your e-mail, and that your attention is the most precious gift anyone can bring to the world.
The higher the quality of your attention, the more focused you can be on high-level tasks, the more productive you are, the greater your reach, and the more you can make in an online world which is still growing outward from 1994 like the Big Bang, creating a universe which is rapidly becoming too infinite to comprehend.