Filtering the email overload: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like an e-nail.

"If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail*" - this is what you will experience, when you rely on a single tool you are familiar with. Hitting e-nails is easier when you have more than a hammer.

In yesterday's edition of the Austrian print magazine Profil, the cyberama technology column is titled "It's Technology, Stupid!" and the author goes into a longer rant why computers can't make his life easier. In a world where computers would do all the thinking, emails would automatically answer themselves, the relevant emails would be sorted out and the irrelevant emails deleted, and appointment invitations would automatically add themselves to your calendar, so the author's theory goes. The article goes on blaming technology to have caused the email flood and not providing a cure, and that people in technology companies like Google are incapable of fixing it. And that software does not "live up" to human needs. But will it ever?


What if computers will never think for us? What if they are just "tools for thinking" that we, humans, use? What if we are the "tinkerers" building such tools? What if there are tools beside email, that you aren't aware of? What if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? What if we need to realize that our habits are not good anymore and we have to change habits?

Taking a hammer to hit on every e-nail is a bad habit. Changing a bad habit is hard (every smoker who wants to quit will agree), but possible and worth it. Then it is up to us to think, analyse, and pick tools that are appropriate for our modern times. I will point out some email killers that I would recommend to try:

  • Deciding on an appointment: If you want to find the right appointment, see free spots in a calendar, and automatically add appointments to your calendar, admit that email is bad and use something like to ease the decision process for everyone involved.
  • Collaborating on a project: If you want to talk to a few people longer than a day, you have a project. Everyone will need to sort out emails and files, organize tasks, communicate on progress. Use a project collaboration tool. Basecamp is a good choice. Refinder too, our own tool to search activities and data in your projects.
  • Filtering emails automatically: Google does indeed offer Priority Inbox to automatically filter and prioritize emails. Apple mail offers you to add appointments to a calendar when found in your mail. This is here since longer, but not available for everyone. And people have to change their habit of writing a bit, so that the appointments are readable by Apple mail.
  • Automatically understand your emails and answering the big questions in life: This of course is possible, in the realm of prototypes, beta, and scientific software. In the USA, the $200mio CALO project worked on a "cognitive assistant that learns and organizes". That was from 2003 to 2008, I wrote some notes about it. They succeeded in building a IRIS, a desktop software to filter mails based on your interest. A few of the daunting researchers teamed up with businessmen, left their institutes and founded a company, naming it backwards of IRIS. They were bought by Apple and only three years later, roughly 10 years after the initial idea, SIRI is a product on every iPhone. It can also answer big questions like "Where is the next screening of Hugo in a cinema, and where can I get pizza before the show starts?". 
    The European counterpart was NEPOMUK, the networked environment for personalized ontology-based management of unified knowledge. It resulted in a desktop search engine shipped to millions of KDE users and into our spin-off company Refinder. IBM and SAP also took some results into their products. In this project, there were prototypes of semantic email-clients that could understand what the sender wants and automatically do some of the actions (such as adding an appointment to the calendar).

Switching to the new habit takes time. The same with the data that these tools need to work. To find the "cinema and the pizza", you do not send one million spam mails to everyone who would ever need such pizza and cinema combination. This is the old times, email flood. There are tools and languages appropriate for our times. Google, Yahoo and Bing recommend Schema as the way to offer your pizza. Someone running a restaurant will stop sending spam and offer his pizza menu in this format, and your inbox will be lighter and SIRI will be able to help you get a good night out.

However loud you demand it: Intelligent tools do not build themselves. They don't come out of a magical hat and appear. It is still tinkerers who build them, listening to the way people act and observing their habits. People use new tools and change their habits. They try a new hammer. They do not send emails anymore. In case you want to agree on an appointment, do this with a proper tool. If you want to communicate on a project, use a collaboration tool. If you are a restaurant offering pizzas, say it in a way that people will be able to use.

And be sure: there are technology companies around that can help you do all this with one click. Even from your email client, if you still want to use your old hammer on every e-nail.

btw: The "Profil" article's author is not mentioned, but I guess it is Thomas Vasek who is editor of that part of the paper.