When my Bookman gave me a copy of The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman I was interested in it not because I am swamped by email but because of the history of communication aspect of the book. And that history part of the book was fascinating. For instance, did you know that in 1635 Charles I was the first monarch to extend mail services to his subjects? But even then it was too expensive for most.

The penny post in London was set up in 1680 and anyone could mail a letter anywhere in the city for a penny. People loved it. How about this factoid: in 1873 the Royal Mail handled over 1 billion pieces of mail a year, employed 42,000 people and had more than 12,000 post offices.

In the United States it took the postal service a while longer to really take off. Sending mail from one coast to the other was very expensive and there was no guarantee it would even get there. However, in 1851 when the rate was reduced to three cents to anywhere in the U.S. mail volume shot up. In 1840 the average American sent three letters a year. By 1900 it was up to 69 per year. By 1960, the postal service regularly handled over 63 billion pieces of mail a year which comes out to 350 pieces of mail for every man, woman, and child living in the U.S. at that time.

Freeman also writes about the impact of the telegram and the telephone as well as newspapers on communications. He is careful to point out that whenever a new technology became fast and cheap a sort of tipping point would be reached and people would start using the new method more often than the old method of communication. The world got progressively smaller. And then the internet happened. And email. And our lives will never be the same again.

Now we can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. Because it is so fast and easy we are now suffering under a daily deluge in our inboxes from spam to joke and chain letter emails to legitimate emails from work and friends. In 2006 a study was reported that the average office worker sent and received 126 emails per day. Even when I worked in an office I must not have been an average worker because I never got that many emails in a day and I was tech support for over 100 people. Obviously there are office workers out there skewing the numbers and I feel sorry for them.

All is fine and good until Freeman gets to email. When that happens the interesting historical bits suddenly turn into a rant about how we have allowed not just email, but technology in general to take over our lives. He bemoans the loss of social, in person contact. At one point he says:

Whereas once cafes were filled with people talking to one another or reading books or newspapers, now you will fins people sitting alone before the glowing screen of their laptops, typing emails, working on documents, chatting with friends a thousand miles away, or surfing the Internet. Sit down with a friend for a face-to-face chat, and you may be scowled at.

Really? I’ve been to lots of different cafes in Minneapolis and have never had this experience. In fact when I go to cafes I go there to meet and catch up with friends I haven’t seen in awhile. We go there to talk. And the place is generally filled with other people who are also talking. This is not to say there aren’t people there with their laptops but they certainly aren’t the majority and they definitely aren’t scowling at anyone.

Freeman has a tendency to jump on the technology bashing bandwagon. He exaggerates frequently and makes blanket universal statements as if everyone obsessively checks their work email on vacation. He also moans, without evidence or support, about what the internet is doing to our brains and our attention span. However, a January Newsweek article about a unscientific survey made of 109 philosophers, neurobiologists and other scholars finds that these experts are pretty much in consensus that the internet hasn’t changed the way we think.

As for Freeman’s scowling laptop cafe people, a Pew Research study released in November 2009 finds that Americans who use mobile phones and the internet/ social networking have a larger more diverse social network in general than people who do not use technology. The study found that people use technology for both friends in far places and friends nearby. As for face-to-face time, the study found that in-person contact “remains the dominant means of communication with core-network members” with an average of in-person contact 210 out of 365 days per year.

I don’t want to belittle the fact that email and technology in general has changed the ways in which we communicate. Some people are overwhelmed and feel out of control. But Freeman raises the issue to the level of epidemic. Freeman’s screed does not match up with my personal experience. He does offer good advice at the end of the book about how to take back your life if you have allowed technology to take it over. Suggestions about how to handle email and things like how to decide when picking up the phone would be better than an email, as well as advice on how to redefine the boundaries between work and private life.

The book felt like it wanted to be three different books. One on the history of communication, one on how technology has changed our lives, and a self-help on email and life/time management. I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone, but if you are feeling buried by technology, particularly email, you might like the book. Otherwise, this is one to skip.