Book Review: A World Without Email - Cal Newport

This book is a good refresher on Cal Newport’s central thesis which shows up in both Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, but with email as the central device. The same essential theorem, but a lot of new stories to go with it as corollaries. Of course, it’s not email technology that the book contests, but the hyperactive hive-mind that are enabled by people’s email habits.

But here’s the only thing I want to leave a note of: I was mildly annoyed by Newport’s invocation (or perhaps, misappropriation) of Claude Shannon’s information theory. He gives four “principles” for a world without email, the third of which he calls The Protocol Principle, which is as follows:

Designing rules that optimize when and how coordination occurs in the workplace is a pain the short term but can result in significantly more productive operation in the long term.

This is true, and indeed, Newport spends an entire chapter developing why it is true. But that chapter is punctuated with analogies to Shannon’s ideas on creating coding and transmission systems which may be more complicated than the underlying messages, but it’s the extra complication that makes the system more fault-tolerant. This is a really far-fetched analogy. Simply, the Protocol Principle can be summarized as follows:

Become difficult to reach. Impose a non-trivial cost on those who are trying to reach you. By doing this, communication will likely be more meaningful and less noisy. _ Channelling Shannon to make this point sounds somewhat unbecoming of a computer scientist. In fact, it sounds more like the work an amateur science writer who has just discovered the elegance of a mathematical theory and wants to create an analogy to it, no matter how tenuous that analogy is.

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