One argument that occasionally comes up when we discuss information overload is that there is nothing new about the problem: it’s been with us ever since Johannes Gutenberg invented that pesky device, the printing press, around 1440; ever since that day we’ve all been flooded with information. The conclusion some draw is we have no cause to complain of email overload, because the problem has been with us for half a millennium. With that conclusion I certainly disagree, because of a key difference between the overload of printed material and the overload we experience today through our computer mediated communications.
That difference is due to one fact: most electronic messaging channels QUEUE. That is, the messages they bring us accumulate in an Inbox of some sort, where we are expected to read them all. The dozens (hundreds?) of books published each day which I might find interesting don’t pile up on my shelf; nobody expects me to read them all. I read what I can, when I have the time; when I finish a book, I pick up another. I don’t worry about the rest. I don’t suffer.
But an email user does suffer, because they feel they must clean their inbox, day in and day out; and in a sense this is true, since their coworkers and managers share this expectation, however impossible to fulfill it usually is. The plight of the information worker lies in the queuing Inbox.
So – if the locus of the problem is the inbox, what can we do about it? Until now, we could focus on helping users process the mail faster, but the problem of the incoming flood persisted. True changes to the inbox paradigm would meet massive resistance (“Whatever you do, don’t touch our Outlook!”, to quote the gut reaction of a senior manager I once discussed options with). Ideas about email that self-destructs after a while, or about limiting the size of the inbox, are interesting in theory but never get much traction. The ubiquitous argument against touching the inbox queue is “but what if I miss a critical message from my boss/a key customer/etc?!?!”.
People realize they can’t read all their incoming mail, but they want to remain in control and to be able – at least in theory – to scan it and find those critical messages. In reality they don’t catch them all, because their inbox is often too bloated, but they want to know that they can in principle.
But then, now we have AI. Artificial Intelligence tools could allow us to explore new, disruptive ideas for inbox management, because they can meet the aforementioned objection and allay the users’ fears. It becomes a whole new ball game when the proposition changes from “We’ll limit your inbox to 100 messages and delete the rest”, to “We’ll limit your inbox to 100 messages and include among those the critical ones from your boss/customer/etc”. Or from “We’ll block incoming messages if you aren’t available”, to “We’ll block unimportant messages if you’re too busy to see them”.
Today’s AI tools, like Knowmail, help you by prioritizing the queue for you and directing your attention; tomorrow’s AI tools might actually shorten the queue by serving as a gatekeeper and conserving your precious attention.
With a smart, tireless, insightful AI assistant, you could afford not to receive most of the messages that are driving you crazy today. wouldn’t that be nice?