Tragedy of the Commons

The other day I was unable to use my email. I received so many
messages from my students that I crossed way over my email box limit
(a measly but disciplined number of MB). Why I receive so much email
is another whole issue, but let that ride. Now, the way our campus
mail works is that once you cross the limit, you are not allowed to
send mail until the box is within limit. So, in effect, the only way
to reply to email is to first delete it. Is that a Catch 22 if
anything?


Here then is a perfect example of a tragedy of the
commons. Overgrazing this resource makes it inaccessible and stops
working for all involved, even though every single person acted
independently, innocently unaware of the impact of their actions.


Yes, there are ways to get around it, such as using another email
account and copying back and forth. Or forwarding the whole mess to
another account. And so on. But it usually simpler and easier to just
delete all messages. That way, no one’s email gets preferential
treatment.


I used to read my email only a few times a day, so as to prevent it
from interfering with my concentration, which is needed if I am to get
any research done (and help save the world from ignorance). But now,
with my mailbox topped out, I need to keep it on and respond fast – so
I am a rat on a wheel, trapped in email hell forever. I have no idea
how long I can keep this up.


Quite apart from aiding communication, email seems to spawn
thoughtless interaction. Just because it is easy to shoot off an
email, everyone assumes that work is getting done. But it isn’t. It
can’t happen unless thought is applied first. Also, waiting for a
response is not getting work done, its waiting to postpone getting
work done. Its also a waste of time.


But I realize that one must set an example. I try very hard now not to
send email without thinking, and never if it has no productive
purpose. Some rules:


  • Do not send emails saying “Thanks”. I agree, it is important to let
    the other person know you got the message, but why not let that be the
    default option?



  • Email is asynchronous. Why make it like the telephone? Dont make it
    into a conversation.



  • Never assume that asking a question merits an answer.



  • Do not let email allow you to push your thinking onto someone else.



  • Delete any email from an unrecognized source.

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