Was Email a Mistake?

The mathematics of distributed systems suggests that meetings might be better

With the arrival of practical asynchronous communication, people replaced a significant portion of the interaction that used to unfold in person with on-demand digital messaging, and they haven’t looked back. The Radicati Group, a technology-research firm, now estimates that more than a hundred and twenty-eight billion business e-mails will be sent and received daily in 2019, with the average business user dealing with a hundred and twenty-six messages a day.

The domination of asynchronous communication over synchronous collaboration has been so complete that some developers of digital-collaboration tools mock the fact that we ever relied on anything so primitive as in-person meetings. In a blog post called “Asynchronous Communication Is the Future of Work,” the technology marketer Blake Thorne compares synchronous communication to the fax machine: it’s a relic, he writes, that will “puzzle your grandkids” when they look back on how people once worked.

As e-mail was taking over the modern office, researchers in the theory of distributed systems—the subfield in which, as a computer scientist, I specialize—were also studying the trade-offs between synchrony and asynchrony. As it happens, the conclusion they reached was exactly the opposite of the prevailing consensus. They became convinced that synchrony was superior and that spreading communication out over time hindered work rather than enabling it.

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