It’s nearly thirty years since Douglas Adams wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and introduced the Electric Monk to the world:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
I remember reading that and feeling a kind of recognition.
True, dishwashers were not that common in the UK when I was growing up: it wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that I moved to California and lived in a rented house with a dishwasher – where, incidentally, I learned that when you run out of dishwasher powder it’s wiser to make do with powdered washing machine detergent than with Fairy Liquid – but my computer-literate circle of friends were enthusiastic early adopters of the home video recorder. By the time we met the Electric Monk, our front-rooms and lounges were stacked knee-deep in video tapes we knew we would never have time to watch.
This has come back to mind recently when I look at my inbox. It’s filled with emails I will never read: shops and magazines, restaurants and hotels, train-, coach- and airlines, banks, utility companies, professional associations, software providers… everyone seems to think they have information I should want to know.
Occasionally, one of the emails is from an actual person: a real friend, colleague or family member. But if the email software didn’t organise things so well for me, these would probably get lost in the noise.
And now I find that when I do actually decide to read and engage with one of the messages, I get an automagic [sic] prompt suggesting an answer: the email elf that lives inside the machine has clearly taken it upon himself to read the message for me and decide how I should reply.
If he isn’t quite sure how I’ll feel about it, he offers several alternatives. Note how agreeable he is, even when the answer is “no”:
“Nope, that’s fine” doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing I’d say, but if the person at the other end is as snowed under as I am, the chances are they won’t notice that and will just choose one of the answers the sprite in their machine suggests.
I’m wondering when we’ll be able to set the email elves chattering back and forth among themselves, allowing us to get some work done. Or perhaps leaving us free to focus on inventing the next gadget or device that will later overwhelm us with more information than we can deal with.
This poem, written for last year’s TEDx event in Leamington Spa seems vaguely relevant:
My inbox overflows with news and views,
updates, invites, promos, ads and spam;
I follow links that rabbit-hole me way beyond
the comfort zone. Opinion and authority lie
side-by-side. Each dizzy moment, history
is written and rewritten: dates are falsified
while facts collide and contradict. Tangled
soundbites nibble at my ears. Virtual vice
and virtuosity go hand-in-hand and Truth
is spun with neat economy. I’m clicking home,
but I am lost and and no one hears my screams