Donald E. Knuth

Donald E. Knuth

In early 1990, programming hero and influential textbook author (“The Art of Computer Programming” in more or less four volumes so far), Donald Knuth wrote:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

I’ve only been using something like email since 1977, but I stayed with it longer all the time hoping for improvements. The promised improvements didn’t come from email really; more from the various email interfaces the best of which are still attempting to integrate “Activity Streams” and variously named productivity flows into the desktop in some meaningful manner. The first mistake is focusing on the desktop and on work.

Just as Xerox focused on a personal computer while — as Malcom Gladwell notices (behind a paywall at New Yorker) — Apple focused on a popular and affordable computer, email integration needs to so to where people both play and work, where they have family, friends and co-workers in some customizable way. And that means the most personal interfaces yet known — those on mobile devices.

In the meantime, I’m exploring other options with your help. When you or others contact me and where will help me decide where to put my communications energies and time.

Unlike Knuth, who handily handed off his email tasks to his secretary as he declared email abandonment, I’m divesting and looking for better, more efficient options.