Saturday, February 09, 2013

Towards the Carbon-Neutral Office

@benhammersley at #RSAwork has some useful tips for email users.

1. A concentrated high productivity state (sometimes known as 'flow') takes 20 mins to get into. So if your e-mail program checks for incoming email every 15 minutes, you will never get into a Flow state (via @MatthewMezey). 

2. Ben himself only checks his email once a day, and claims that many of his correspondents find this liberating. Isn't it good to know that you can email Ben at lunchtime, without getting sucked into batting emails to-and-fro for the rest of the afternoon?

3. Ben also complains about the Reply-All button.

The Reply-All button is also known as CC. Anyone old enough to have used a typewriter may remember that CC stands for carbon copy. For younger readers, let me explain. Before computers people used to type letters and other documents. To save typing the document twice, you would put two pieces of paper into the typewriter, interleaved with a piece of carbon paper, which would give you a carbon copy.

When photocopiers came in, people went crazy. Once we weren't restricted by the physical limitations of carbon paper, we could make as many copies as we could manage before the copier jammed or ran out of toner. Everyone on the project could have a copy of that witty memo to the project manager.

But what a waste of paper. People looked forward to the day when the paperless office would save all those trees. With email, you don't need to worry about your carbon footprint. You can CC your witty or backside-covering email to everyone in the universe, and it doesn't add a molecule to your carbon footprint. After all, if some of the recipients choose to print your email, that's their responsibility not yours.

But there are two problems with this. Firstly, if everyone sends loads of unnecessary emails to unnecessary recipients, this will add to the power and cooling requirements of the computer systems. Secondly, and more importantly, excessive volumes of email waste an enormous amount of time, and pollute the information environment (noise).

So I think we need to reassert the idea of carbon neutrality. Every CC email adds to a growing level of information pollution, and we need to find ways to reduce this pollution. The principle of carbon neutrality implies that those who create the pollution should also be the ones who incur the cost of cleaning it up. So what would be a suitable mechanism?

4. Can we lobby Microsoft to remove the "reply all" button? "Common sense", says @dcoplin, "I'll have a word when I get back in the office tomorrow."

See also How Offices Make Organizations Stupid (Feb 2013)

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