World-weariness has now found its newest expression. It is called ‘email bankruptcy’. The Double-Tongued Dictionary on the internet defines this as “choosing to delete, archive, or ignore a very large number of email messages without ever reading them, replying to each with a unique response, or otherwise acting individually on them”. Those who have been studying the relationship between human beings and their technologies of communication have identified this phenomenon, going back to the late Nineties, as both a fantasy and an actual coping mechanism. “If only one could start all over again with an empty inbox” is how the fantasy goes, and an increasing number of people seem to be turning it into reality. Those with some cyber-scruple left in them, many of them highly successful professionals, have thought up ingenious ways of declaring their email bankruptcy without appearing to be rude, unprofessional or incompetent. But to do so, however one looks at it, is to surrender to a feeling of being impossibly, irredeemably snowed under.
Machines, even artificially intelligent ones, are entirely non-human things. Whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for human beings depends on how they are used by the latter. Email — like the internet in general — could make one feel either wonderfully connected and in control, or hopelessly overwhelmed by life. It is the irony of cyber-modernity that a communications revolution would ultimately lead to human insularity and dysfunction. Thirty Chinese cities have apparently had to open rehabilitation centres for people pathologically addicted to the internet. Similarly, spheres of human activity as disparate as romantic relationships and mass movements have been revolutionized by email. And the same could be said about the mobile phone and instant messaging. It is difficult to imagine either modern love or modern terror without email, the internet and the mobile phone. Yet it is surely significant that each of these technologies has bred its own forms of abuse, overkill and hence, censorship — ways of limiting their endless possibilities of access and dissemination. Yet technology — like the Frankenstein monster — often has a way of turning the tables on its human creators. Human beings, in every age, must swing between being powerfully in control and helplessly out of control.