I once told a friend of mine, a veteran engineer at Intel, that I found that people at Intel devote 20 hours a week to “Doing email”. His thoughtful response was “actually we always had this. We called it Correspondence”. Then he added, “and we devoted 2 hours a week to it”.
Good point… I too remember those days at the start of my career. The correspondence consisted of messages – just like email – and it would come from inside and outside the workplace – just like email – and it would come on sheets of mashed tree pulp inside manila or regular envelopes. Unlike email.
So why did it take only 2 hours a week? Admittedly, many factors have changed since then, but there is one factor that is of key importance: those envelopes had colorful little pieces of paper stuck to them, called stamps. The stamps had their beauty – as a kid, I used to collect them, and I still enjoy them when I get them on my snail mail today. But as to Information Overload, the key factor is that these stamps (or the equivalent postmarks) cost money. The whole mailing process cost you; for each additional recipient you had to copy the letter, stuff it in another envelope, address it, and add one stamp.
Now, if only email would cost money on a per-recipient basis, much of the present overload would disappear (as would most of the spam out there). Making email cost, in whatever manner, is one solution to email overload; some experiments along these lines have been tried, and you may see them in a future post. But overall, alas, we’re still stuck with this curse of plenty: free email, free overload!