Email. Or Productivity. Pick One.

I’ve always found it hard not to infer causality when pondering the immense productivity of Shakespeare (or Dickens, or Aristotle, or … insert your favourite productive person) and the fact that they didn’t have email. At very least it’s hard to deny that those guys show that email is not necessary for productivity.

Cal Newport explores possible reasons for the inverse relationship that sometimes exists between getting stuff done and the technology that Newport quotes a Pew report describing as “the main digital artery that workers believe is important to their job”. In another post, specifically looking at the US Apollo program, Cal speculates:

[My] guess is that if we could go back in time and outfit the Apollo engineers with e-mail terminals, two things would have happened. First, their work lives would have become more convenient. Second, it would have taken them longer to get a man on the moon.

For grins, I once analyzed possible connections between email use and the productivity of another prolific brain, Donald Knuth. Over a 53-years-and-counting career (which I took to start in 1963 with the completion of his doctorate) during which, among many other things, he published several volumes of The Art Of Computer Programming (TAOCP) and developed a minor piece of software known as TeX, he used email for only 31% of that time. He started using email in 1975 but then stopped again in 1990, explaining that his work required “long hours of … uninterruptible concentration”. Knuth doesn’t say it but it’s probably relevant that 1990 marked the beginning of the AOLer invasion into and resulting demise of Usenet and the end of the early Internet’s glory days of the 1980s. In other words, if you wanted to pick a year when chucking email made sense so as to avoid the explosion of distracting mediocrity that is much of the modern Internet, 1990 was probably it.

The other 69% “non email years” were split between 12 years of his early career which saw him publishing the first three volumes of TAOCP, and the 24 years since “retiring” at age 54. That retirement has seen publication of the seminal work on Literate Programming, plus ongoing work on the rest of TAOCP. Again, correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but the fact that someone as productive as Knuth was afflicted by email for less than a third of his career can’t be pure coincidence.

[Addendum, 2017-05-11: Just noticed that I inadvertently left scope for people not getting a joke. Just in case anyone is in doubt, let me be as clear as the style of Douglas Adams allows: The piece of software known as TeX is minor in the way that Anatolia isn’t.]

[Addendum, 2017-05-12: Sigh. Too obscure? OK, fine. TeX rocks. Knuth rocks. In general, we’re not worthy. All hail Donald. (No, not that Donald!)]

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