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Review: Freeman's 'The Tyranny of E-mail' is an unlikely page-turner that may give readers pause

Do you check your e-mail from the downy comfort of bed? Admit it. You do.

I'm just as guilty. And maybe I'm worse. On a typical day, you might catch me checking my e-mail in even odder places.

From the elliptical trainer.

In the washroom during a date.

How do I know this is an illness?

I've caught myself clicking away during church choir while the tenors sang, my BlackBerry hidden in the forgiving folds of my flowing white robes.

In prose both wise and entertaining, a book has arrived to awaken a nation of inveterate e-mail checkers from their collective lunacy. In The Tyranny of E-mail, book critic and Granta editor John Freeman first provides a history of letter-writing, from ancient clay envelopes to modern telegrams.

And despite my lifelong pledge to forgo any book with the word "tyranny" in the title, I have to admit the author's canny voice makes every page of this unlikely page-turner sing sweetly.

At first Freeman merely pokes fun at a scene familiar to us all, from the farmlands of Kansas to the beaches of California, from sea to shining sea:

"Lunch hour in Manhattan can sometimes feel like an out-take from a strange daylight zombie film," he writes, describing the subhumans as "e-mail drones, flicking and scrolling through their handhelds, checking e-mails that they could just as easily read twenty minutes later at the desk. (They) are given a wide berth on city streets by the not yet addicted."

Soon, however, Freeman impresses upon the reader that our fellow zombies may be more than a mere nuisance. After all, what is all of this crazy multitasking actually doing to our brains?

Freeman conducted a methodical review of research relating to the psychology behind the "variable interval reinforcement schedule," and he explains that some researchers think receiving an e-mail has the same addictive qualities as pulling the arm of a slot machine.

"CrackBerry" users will hardly be surprised to know this reward system is often the most difficult to escape.

Freeman explains that "there are chemical reasons for why this reward feels good, reasons that go beyond the quality or rarity of the gossip." The book critic turned culture commentator points to dopamine, the hormone and neurotransmitter that floods the brain when we get a big reward.

Research suggests that our incessant e-mail checking and multitasking are rewiring the circuitry of our brains. In addition to the productivity issues this creates, it also has implications for anyone who cares about the future of the written word.

"The longer we work this way," Freeman concludes, "the harder it's going to be to do things that force us out of our reactive, drone-like existence, such as reading a novel or even a long magazine piece." Worse, Freeman notes, is the fact that some psychologists are actually "pushing to have 'Internet addiction' . . . broadly classified as a clinical disorder."

Freeman also tells horror stories of just how decidedly not private e-mail can be, offering a variety of anecdotes to make your blood run cold.

Perhaps you are one of those people who has carelessly forwarded e-mail to the wrong person or hit "reply all" on a sensitive e-mail.

Worse yet, there are tales of sexual conquests crisscrossing the world via the Internet with a mere click of that ever-fateful "forward" key.

Some are merely embarrassing, like the case of the executive who sent details of his salary to the entire company by accident and pulled the fire alarm in panic.

The permanence of our online lives is something we rarely think about, yet should. With records existing for years in a backup system somewhere in the vapors, e-mail can be worst for those with an itchy trigger finger on the "send" key. According to Freeman, e-mail misuse and abuse can be blamed for a wide variety of societal ills: Marriages are broken, companies ruined (see: Enron), friendships frayed and associates alienated.

Even if The Tyranny of E-mail never prompts you to renegotiate your own relationship with technology, it's a funny read filled with anecdotes you'll want to share with friends. Preferably, in person.

The Tyranny of E-mail:

The Four-Thousand-Year

Journey to Your Inbox

By John Freeman

Scribner, 224 pages, $25

Review: Freeman's 'The Tyranny of E-mail' is an unlikely page-turner that may give readers pause 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 3:30am]
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