Man at His Best

Opinion: An Untidy Inbox

Columnist Matt Armitage contemplates his almost 50,000 unread emails.

BY Matt Armitage | Oct 15, 2016 | Technology

Facebook / Matt Armitage


I’m starting this post with a trigger warning. If you are one of the legions of obsessives who cannot cope with digital sprawl, I suggest you go away and do something more soothing, like suck on a lavender pillow, listen to a lullaby or whatever it is your kind do when you aren’t deleting things. In the age of the Brazilian, the Landing Strip and the Hollywood, I have committed the ultimate sin: I proudly display my untidy Inbox.

For the last 12 months or so I have been posting pix of the upward progress of the unread emails that are spread across the four or five email accounts I regularly use (I may have mentioned it here from time to time). At time of writing, that number was just a touch under 50,000. You might want to read that number again. If you’re feeling something like vertigo, grab your blankie and switch on your Fisher Price mobile. I wouldn’t read any further unless you’re ready for aversion therapy.

How did it come to this, you palpitate? How could I have lost control so badly that that I count my emails by the bushel? I probably receive the best part of a hundred emails a day. It’s not an enormous amount, and it’s way down from my active client management days, when I could easily double or occasionally treble that figure.

These days the majority of the messages are newsletters and circulars and updates; the necessary ephemera of this job. Maybe ten percent of those will require some actual input; a reply, or something more intensive. Most of the work stuff has moved to Whatsapp, or Slack or whichever productive messaging app we’re using this week. I’m not going to dive too deeply into the dull details: I have kept years of work emails for legal and reference purposes and smart search tools mean sorting and using folders is a fool’s errand.

Perhaps the daftest accusation I’ve faced is that I’m a digital hoarder. When you hoard newspapers, clothes, troll dolls or toenails, you eventually run out of space. Rats infest your filthy home. Floors and ceilings sag under the weight of depression and your shower becomes a place to store a six-month supply of cornflakes. No, email is just ones and zeroes. There are no cyber rodents and my shower is cereal free once I’ve rinsed my toes.

I’m not a hoarder because my Inbox doesn’t exist in a physical sense. I could print it out, but as I can’t be bothered to read what’s already in there, what are the chances I’ll expend the calories needed to hit CTRL + P? Especially as storage space is no longer an issue with most email accounts—whether free or paid for—as long as you allow your service provider to mine and sub-mine your data in perpetuity.

That’s why storage is so cheap: these guys want information; an ever-morphing map of your wants and desires and turns of phrase. So, deleting information isn’t easy by design. It isn’t just the avarice of the ad-sales bot; if a passing cat could erase the report you desiccated your eyes to create with a lazy swipe of its paw, you’d be pissed. As a result, purging your email is a lot more time consuming and a lot less interesting than watching the latest movie instalment of The Purge.

I happily admit that it’s a provocation. I take pride in the ballooning numbers and post the updates just to see what reaction I get. I don’t get a lot of Likes but the comments are usually fun; often of the ‘I want to punch you’ variety. I take the insults affectionately, after all, I’m the protagonist. It’s when people take a peek at my phone screen and see those red boxed notification numbers shining out like the Bat-Signal that things get uglier.

Telling some folk you don’t delete is like sucker-punching them in the gut. They physically deflate, their body language changes abruptly as their posture tightens and the shoulders hunch. Occasionally you’ll hear their voice rise in pitch and they’ll start to look all twitchy, like a junkie after 24 hours without no fix. They all have the same idea dancing across their eyes: to grab the phone and erase it and set all those counters back to glorious zero. if only dry-mouth hadn’t rendered them immobile. After a while they regain some composure, but they won’t smile again orlet their guard down until we’ve said our goodbyes.

What’s weirdest is that they seem to take it as a personal affront, an attempt to throw the universe out of whack. ‘What if there was something important in there?’ they will inevitably ask. ‘I scan through them all’, I reply. ‘People can always call me if it’s important’, I will add, with carefully calculated insouciance. It’s not like I ever missed a flight because I hadn’t checked my Inbox. Hell, I even check my Spam box a couple of times a month, just to be sure. I’m relaxed, not incompetent.

In case you think my digital hygiene only lapses when it comes to email, you might not want to see the 8,000 unsorted photos and 700 videos on my phone. Or the terabytes of uncatalogued RAW and JPEG files on hard drives from my days as a photographer. But those are topics for another day; when you’re feeling a little better.