Sunday, November 30, 2008

Giving up Email

How long could you live without email? What would it cost in terms of lost productivity and increased difficulty and expense of communication?

I know that I could live without email. I suspect that doing so would significantly decrease my productivity (a suspicion supported by this study of the impact of email on productivity in a white collar environment). There would unquestionably be a period of adjustment when I would be most unhappy to lose what is probably my primary means of communication with friends and clients.

Now, Barack Obama is facing the prospect of losing his ability to use email (see article here). The short version of why is that there are concerns that email isn't secure enough for presidential communications, and the White House doesn't want the president to create an email paper trail which could potentially be subpoenaed. To me, this is crazy. Other secrecy sensitive professions, such as lawyers (who have to protect client confidences) have managed to make peace with the limitations of email and embraced it as a useful tool (see, e.g., this opinion regarding usage of cell phones and email by lawyers). Now, it's true that the president has information (e.g., plans for the conduct of war) which is substantially more important than the confidential information lawyers have access to. However, there's no reason for the president to be completely cut off from email.

So, given that most people are not, and will never be, president, what significance does this have for the day to day lives of ordinary individuals? Only this: I don't think Obama will do it. Even back in 2000, George W. Bush lamented having to give up his email. Since 2000, people's usage of email has increased dramatically (compare this article from 2000 which predicted email usage of about 9 megs/day/person in 2001, with this white paper which puts email usage at 19.3 megs/day/person in 2008) and Obama is a famously wired individual. I predict (though I realize that there is a note of wishful thinking in this prediction) that Obama will rebel against the prohibition on email, and will use his position as the most powerful person in the world to do something about it. Maybe he'll request that technology be put in place that will make his emails more secure, and that technology will eventually become available to the public at large. Maybe he'll propose tougher laws or regulations on network service providers so that email becomes a more secure medium of communication. Whatever the case, if Obama takes action to make being a wired professional more consistent with the heightened security requirements of being president, it can't help but have positive security implications for the country as a whole.

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