If you’re a Gmail user, you’re probably aware by now of a major redesign – currently optional, soon to be compulsory – that aims to tackle the problem of email overload by using artificial intelligence. One of the most annoying aspects of living alongside other humans is the way they’re constantly making demands on your emotions and attention: you have to figure out when to sacrifice your own priorities in order to help them; you’ve got to empathise with them when they’re sad or ill, and so on.
Traditionally, antidotes for email overload work by filtering out messages from people you don’t care about. But the new Gmail focuses on messages from people you do care about – and promises to do some of that caring on your behalf. A new “nudge” feature will automatically decide whether your friend Belinda’s lunch invite is important enough to prompt you to hurry up and reply. The “high-priority notifications” feature will decide whether to interrupt your meeting by pinging you when your kids get in touch. And “smart replies” offers entire pre-written messages, so you can respond to news of Uncle Norbert’s latest gastrointestinal infection with a single click: “Oh no! Feel better soon!”
If I’ve any criticism, it’s Google’s lack of ambition. Why stop at nudges and common brief phrases? Why can’t Gmail write whole emails, scouring my message archive for what I’ve been up to, then sending long, chatty updates on it all to far-flung friends? What about sweet little “thinking of you” messages to my partner? Or couldn’t you somehow link Gmail to databases of births, marriages and deaths, so my contacts could automatically receive missives of celebration or condolence as appropriate? I’m reminded of Flaneur, a hypothetical app imagined by the writer Curtis Brown, aimed at those who disdain “corporeal connection of any kind”. Flaneur would locate a potential match – that woman at the bar, that guy across from you on the train – then start chatting with their phone, dispensing ever more intimate titbits about your life, receiving similar titbits in return, gradually forging a deepening bond, leaving you free to concentrate on what really matters. Namely work. And maybe Twitter.
Of course, “smart” communication does have its downsides. One of them is what’s known in economics as the Jevons paradox: as the use of a resource gets more efficient, demand for it increases. Just as widening motorways often attracts more cars, making it faster to reply to emails will almost certainly lead to more emails. The overload problem won’t be solved at all.
But then again, will we truly care? Once smart email gets good enough, it’ll have served its real existential purpose, which is to let you dodge the question of whether you need to make some radical change in your life – terminating friendships, shedding commitments, quitting your unreasonably demanding job. With automated replies, there’s no limit to the number of social relationships you can have – and it’s not even really you who has to have them. Leave that job to your devices. You get to focus on being productive and meeting your goals, unburdened by others’ demands, calm and undistracted in your pristine bubble of loneliness.