Posted by Matt Egan 18 August 2014
Mobile email is powerful and useful - but also hopelessly intrusive
Mobile email is great, isn't it. Isn't it?
I recently gifted an iPad to an older family member. This person is tech savvy, and committed to lifelong learning, so there was never any suggestion of a struggle to get to grips with the iPad, which is after all a computer with stabilisers on. But witnessing my relative get to grips with mobile computing has been interesting chiefly because of the differences in attitude toward privacy and commiunications, between me at 36 and someone a generation older.
(Incidentally, the attitudenal gap gets bigger when I look down from my middle age to my teenaged and younger nieces and nephews, but I'll leave to someone else to write the blog about how out of touch I have become.) (See also: How to stop your parents opening and responding to phishing emails.)
Let's take email as an interesting example.
My older relative is, as I mentioned, tech savvy. She's been at least around computers since before I was born, and will definitely have used email regularly long before I ever did. But email was never an important work tool during her professional career. Indeed, it remains as the name suggests 'electronic mail'. A messaging system to be checked daily, but something more formal than a phonecall, less frequent and time sensitive than an SMS.
(I well remember my own father, in the latter years of his very successful executive career, being given a laptop via which he could check his email. And then him doing so *only* from that laptop, and only at specific times of the day. In retirement he shares my mum's account, and relies on her to open or even print out relevant messages. The world has changed a lot in a very short time. So much so that I can for the first time sort of understand what the Amstrad [email protected] was all about. Sort of.)
Setting up email on the iPad was, of course, a cinch. My relative already uses webmail, so it was simply a question of putting in the password and address and letting the server side stuff resolve itself. She was impressed, but also disturbed by the simplicity of the process. The latter even more so when at the end of our session I had to explain that one doesn't sign out of email on a portable device, and that even though the iPad was synching with her email account, she could simultaneously use webmail via her laptop. (See also: How technology has changed the way we communicate, and it's good as well as bad.)
In part this reflected the perfectly rational privacy concerns of someone who is regularly subjected to scare stories about loss of data. And we could assuage that by putting on the iPad a passcode. But the problem was also something more subtle, and significant.
The transition to mobile and ubiquitous availability makes email - and indeed social media and IM - more powerful and potentially more useful. But it also makes such communication more intrusive. Less easy to escape.
To return to the snail mail analogy, I'm sure we'd all prefer postal mail to arrive first thing in the morning, and for a reliable second post to be made available every day. But I'm not sure how keen we'd all be on receiving mail at every hour, day or night. Especially not if it arrived in our pockets wherever we were in the world. And that is exactly what email on a mobile device represents.
We've all got used to the idea that always on, always connected is a good thing. But I have written elsewhere on this blog about how to stay sane and productive in such a world (See also: 5 ways to switch off when you are always on). And perhaps that means that going mobile with email, Facebook and more is not always a great idea.