Ward Nicholson

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Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 2

More from our disgruntled narrator in a salvo directed at some of today’s technologies that now bring as many, if not more, downsides as upsides to their use.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

Email gone rogue

There’s no doubt that email is very functional in today’s world of e-commerce. Like others with businesses to run, I rely on it heavily. Even though many of us now use texting and other forms of direct or private messaging or chat for many communications, email is still the lingua franca — the all-inclusive, lowest common denominator of electronic communications for conducting official business. The rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

But that said, for me the number of unsolicited, unwanted email intrusions from non-work-related companies I’ve made purchases from at some point or other over the years has recently reached epidemic proportions. Several months ago it had gotten to the point where almost every day I was besieged with “news” or “special deals” or solicitations that I never signed up for from these companies. Legal companies, I should add, but nonetheless behaving badly.

Since I work in a deadline-oriented field where prompt responses are expected, by necessity I’ve set up my computer to notify me whenever a new email arrives that I need to know about. These alerts go beyond incoming business email from customers, and also include that from personal friends, billing notices, etc.

(I should note that these alerts only apply to a fraction of the email I receive, much of which consists of other types of email, such as recurring newsletters, notifications of website security scans and successful online backups of computer data, or discussion-forum emails. For these, I’ve set up rules to automatically filter or archive them sight unseen into separate mailboxes for later scanning or reference, should that become necessary.)

Over time, the number of unsolicited emails had become an ongoing burden that I increasingly came to resent, because of the Chinese-water-torture-like drip, drip, drip of unwanted interruptions that, cumulatively, were stealing my time — and therefore life — away from me on the installment plan.

Stamping out unwanted email: like playing whack-a-mole

Fending off and stamping out such intrusions was, and to an extent still is, like a game of whack-a-mole. No sooner have I unsubscribed from one company’s list I didn’t sign up for than another one spams me with something new, interrupting my workflow, just because I made a purchase from them last week or last month or last year. The merry-go-round seems to be never-ending.

And some companies provide no way for you to unsubscribe. Either that, or you’re hesitant to click the Unsubscribe link in the unwanted email, because you don’t know for sure if the company is legit or remember whether you ever did business with them before. (Unless, of course, you grudgingly spend the time to perform a search on your email database every time.) The risk being: if not, what if that so-called Unsubscribe link is one that will download and install malware on your computer instead?

So in these cases, what I’ve taken to doing is setting up email filters that just trash any such email from these companies sight unseen — while simultaneously attempting to be discriminating about what type of an email it is, and letting any truly needed, official emails from the company through where possible — so I’m never even aware of them anymore.

The obvious danger in this, though, is the risk of “false positives”: that is, emails that aren’t spam but get classified as such. But the alternative is that unless you’re going to delete, sight unseen, all email fingered as spam by your filters, the aggravating thing about spam filters is that you still have to check your spam folder once or twice a day to make sure no “false positives” have resulted.

Absent 100% accuracy with spam filtering, then, which isn’t possible, you can’t completely ignore your spam folder — which is what you’d actually prefer. So, you have to make the choice of either setting up filters to immediately trash emails from certain companies while risking deleting ones you might actually want, or else having your filters siphon them off into a spam folder you have to regularly give the once-over.

Neither one is an ideal solution, which creates continual “friction” and contributes to the diminishing, or even negative, returns that some experience with email today. Those who have to deal with a large amount of email on a daily basis can be very seriously impacted, perhaps spending a couple of hours or even more out of their day combating the flood.

Bad-acting companies who think they’re God’s gift to humankind

Some companies have aggressive attitudes about spamming you, and aren’t above engaging in some heavy-handed, psychological arm-twisting to keep you on the hook. Here’s an example worth relating that really stuck in my craw. For my personal website here, I use the Envira Gallery WordPress plug-in to display my car tag design work on the LeewardPro page. The plug-in is a very well-written, well-supported, feature-filled piece of software all the way around.

So I was exasperated, after receiving one of their unsolicited junk emails, to see the following message when I attempted to unsubscribe from the list. When I clicked on the Unsubscribe link and was taken to a page on their website, here’s what it said:

NOTE: You are receiving this email because you purchased Envira Gallery or subscribed to receive one of our resources. If you unsubscribe, we will be unable to send you notifications about software updates, renewal of your license, helpful resources, etc.

Think carefully before you decide to unsubscribe from this list.

We don’t send out a lot of emails and when we do — it is only with the best intentions.

Envira Gallery Loves You

Wow. Shades of Orwell’s 1984. The reality here is that they were sending out one email every week like clockwork: a rate of 52 per year. (“We don’t send out a lot of emails”? Yeah, right, gimme a break.) And if I unsubscribe from the junk, you won’t send me official notices about my software license expiration either? Jerks.

While I hesitated and didn’t unsubscribe the first time, the next time I went ahead and did so, then set up a recurring yearly reminder on my computer to let me know when the Envira Gallery license was expiring, to handle the reminders myself.

Note: When I returned just now to check the Unsubscribe link on their website, I see the company has wised up — at least some. Now the page contains a simple Unsubscribe button with the brief message, “Remove yourself from all future mailings.”

I’ll bet they must have gotten an earful about the previous one. However, there’s still no choice to unsubscribe from the junk while remaining subscribed to official-business emails, or any indication if there is a difference or not when you do unsubscribe.

No easy solution other than maintaining your email filters

Another reason for keeping on top of your email filters is that with an iPhone, which I currently have, there’s no way to filter email on the phone itself. Which means that if you don’t want to be bothered with spurious email alerts on the phone, the only way to deal with the problem is to leave your computer on while you’re away from the office, so your email application there can continue to filter out any spam or other unnecessary interruptions, and prevent them from reaching your phone in the first place. (With today’s IMAP-protocol email accounts, emails are synced between all devices that access the same email address, so that filtering spam on your computer effectively filters it for all devices.)

Unfortunately, I have no perfect solution to the problem of junk email from legitimate companies other than keeping on top of unsubscribing, plus learning how to set your own email filters to trash emails from the companies who won’t listen.

What are the larger forces at work behind the burden email has now become?

So why is the volume of what I’ll here call “non-spam spam” — that is, unwanted email from legitimate companies who may be following the “letter” of the law as it applies to spam, but who don’t respect the “spirit” of it — now beyond the pale? Why do they purposely seem to find new ways to spam you even when you may have previously unsubscribed from their spew at some earlier time?

I believe it’s two things. No, actually three things, but let me get the first one out of the way right off the bat, because it is so obvious it’s easy to overlook:

Lots of stupid people out there falling for spam encourages more

Sad as it seems, one can only conclude there are many people out there who believe that yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as a free lunch. When it comes to real criminal spam, these are the nitwits who actually respond to or click on links in the emails thinking they might get something for nothing, and thus provide their computers free for the taking to the cyber-criminals who harvest them as the latest clueless conscripts into their botnets. Or the numbskulls who believe that that nice man from Nigeria really does need their help to deposit a $500,000 check into an American bank, for which he’s willing to cut them in on a princely cut of the proceeds.

It’s these 5 or 10% of people (or whatever the percentage actually is) who are the trusting, blithering idiots whom we have to thank for the scourge that is spam. For if it were not for them, there would be no one to dupe into furthering the cybercrooks’ schemes. A zero, or near-zero, percent return (allowing for a certain number of inadvertent, accidental clicks) would put a stop to it in nothing flat.

Now, here, we are talking about malicious spam, i.e., the type designed to trick you into clicking on an email attachment that results in a virus being installed on your machine. Or email responsible for so-called “drive-by downloads” — email containing a link pointing to a malicious website that installs a virus or other malware on your machine if you click on the link.

The desire for deals or not potentially missing out: a hidden fuel source for promotional spam

Malicious spam aside, though, unsolicited promotional emails of the “spammy” kind from bona fide companies depend on much the same mentality that fuels why people are suckers for it, in lesser form. In large part, this mentality is what keeps encouraging such companies to spam us as well: the hankering many people have to score more “deals” of one type or another. Deals that, in reality, aren’t really true deals.

That’s because while any single purchase might constitute a deal — when viewed in isolation — always being on the lookout for “deals” is a kind of addictive behavior that leads one to spend more money than you probably should in the long run. Because if you are a person always looking for a deal, you often cannot resist falling for one even if it’s something you don’t really need.

The insatiable desire to be ever better informed

But even where it’s not a hankering for “deals” that makes us suckers for email pitches — say, instead, a desire to stay up to date and informed — we still have to recognize we only have so much “brain bandwidth.” After a fairly limited point, we have to choose. We can’t have it all, information-wise. The idea that we can is a misperception, a mistaken idea. Of course, perhaps we ourselves are not the ones who initially signed up to get the “informational” emails. Many times, the companies take it upon themselves to send them to us without our bidding or consent, at least to begin with.

However, if we allow these brain-snatchers to keep sending these emails, then it’s mostly our own fault that we continue to get them. To stop falling for so much of this, we need to realize more is not better when it comes to information. The optimum amount of high-quality information is what is better, but even there, the quota of it we can truly handle is not nearly as much as we like to think.

Too many of us are ceaselessly glugging consumers of “Big Gulp” appeals in their myriad forms, chronically overestimating, continually attempting to bite off or slurp down more than we can chew or swallow when it comes to almost everything: Food, information, what our budgets and our bodies can successfully handle, the incessant desire for a surfeit of entertainment as opposed to even a modicum of exercise. The American way seems to be more of almost everything that is bad for our health and psychological well-being at the expense of what is good for it.

But the way of nature, of health, of sanity, is often less. Or finding the right balance, at any rate — which may often seem like less when it comes to so many of the things we succumb to in lieu of the things we need and could use more of but avoid. Such things as muscular labor and exercise vs. sedentariness and one-sided mental or computer work; serenity and peace vs. overstimulation; creative output vs. sucking in of excessive passive entertainment; being participants rather than spectators; engaging in considered thought and conversation vs. brief emotionally driven bursts of one-liners and tweets.

The list is long, the avoidances just as long, and the pitfalls, downsides, and diminishing or negative returns are what we reap in response.

Diminishing returns from spammy emails, ads, tweets, and shrill news stories now only lead to more

The second reason for the escalation in unwanted emails is that companies seem to be hitting a point of diminishing returns with their online advertising efforts in general, whatever form they may take. Or alternatively, they are attempting to use them to compensate for the hits they’re taking in various areas of their businesses.

That is the sense I get, anyway, based on the number of companies you see these days running aground; changing hands or getting bought out; discontinuing or consolidating product lines; reducing the services they used to offer or charging higher prices for those that were formerly complimentary; and so forth.

The “churn” we are all experiencing in an economy that has not appreciably improved in a meaningful way since the 2007/2008 financial crisis seems to be reflected, in turn, by an increasingly frantic churn of email bombardments by companies grasping for income. The economy does not seem to have improved “down on the ground” below the rarefied air of the 10% of the population whose incomes have increased over the last few decades while the rest of ours have stagnated or gone down.

Thus, the somewhat illogical result seems to be that, in response to diminishing returns, companies have only redoubled their efforts with email solicitations and other electronic appeals and intrusions, not seeming to understand that recipients’ attention spans have a hard ceiling. And the more of an incoming onslaught we get, the more annoyed we become with it, and the less we pay attention.

Unlike optical fiber, the bandwidth of the human brain is sharply limited and cannot be increased. The more email we get and ads we are bombarded by, the less attention we can spare for any single instance. So the less attention any each advertising message receives, the more email that companies believe they need to send, or ads they need to place, or tweets to make.

Email does not occur in a vacuum and must compete with online ads, texts, chat messages, Instagrams, tweets, Facebook comments, blog posts, news stories, you name it. And obviously, none of these occur in a vacuum either.

The juggernaut we all face daily is the entire context of messages in any form, raining down on all of us. It has become a race to the bottom everywhere in terms of shrill tactics and outrageous statements, stunts, and gambits. But this “arms race” has no winners, and can lead only to a reduction in the effectiveness of the entire paradigm or marketing method.

You hear stories these days of business people who get so far behind on their email, they decide to just dump or archive everything, and start over again with a clean slate. And, of course, that strategy itself only works for so long before it has to be done again. (Obviously, there is a lot of similar frustration with Facebook and Twitter as well, to name two of the most high-profile communication forms that are both loved and reviled.)

As a result many people now use email only when absolutely necessary — receiving online bills/receipts, for example — and have retreated into the more shielded setting of direct, sometimes private, messaging of one sort or another to the degree that they can: texting, online chatting, etc. If they are high-level business managers, they may even have moved on (or perhaps more accurately, back) to doing business primarily by phone. Perhaps even doing things the “old-fashioned way” (horrors) by having underlings or receptionists directing their calls.

Diminishing returns from the overall economy itself

The third factor that I believe is pushing companies to send so much more email to maintain past “returns” on it, however, is much deeper and more fundamental: Our economy itself is, in the long-term, beginning to run aground. We are having to work ever harder for ever-diminishing returns.

The initial stages of civilizational decline that Western society is now facing and has begun to undergo is something I looked at in The Personal Impact of Industrial Decline, Here and Now. But in a nutshell, the currently accepted paradigm of unlimited economic growth on a finite planet (which is actually folly, of course, despite what the economists say) is foundering on the realities of a heavily plundered and grossly overpopulated Earth. Nonrenewable natural resources are inescapably depleting, and the human economy is beginning to cannibalize itself as a result. In more prosaic terms: the relatively rich — both between countries, and within the population of any given country — continue seeking to maintain their riches at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Now we are all increasingly beginning to feel the pinch in various ways. If not financially, then in reduced time available for what needs to be done, and with many things increasingly competing for our attention.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the increasing “thrashing about” we see happening with email and other forms of online messaging, but with many other things too.

More of the tirade to come in Part 3.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

6 Responses to Are you hitting the point of negative returns with technology? (I am) Part 2

  1. Sheesh. Nasty. A while ago I was so besieged by spam — and feeling I did have to check what I was deleting since legit mails do fall in there — I set up a separate trash file, just one, that gathers us all the obvious and repetitious spam via keywords… like “enlargement,” for example. It got rid of the vast majority of the spam, which is now easy to deal with.

    On wordpress, I do have to say that akismet works wonders. I used to check the spam there, and over the years I have been on WP, I have only caught legit mail a couple of times… and I was alerted to it by friends whose comment had vanished. So I just delete it wholesale. Not worth worrying at all.

    More thoughts as I keep reading.

    Hey… wanna move to Siberia? ;-)

  2. My sense is that the world economy is a ponzi scheme. There is still plunder to be had here and there, and of course there is still lots of soil to mine, but the game is winding down. Once the robots really kick in — is it genocide time, I keep asking, or war of all against all? Maybe both. I have a creepy sense that the elites are playing the planet like a board game… and winnowing is in the works. Just not sure how they’ll set up the game so that more people survive willing to service them rather than kill them.

  3. Leavergirl, rather humorously and ironically, your first comment above got waylaid by, wait for it… none other than Akismet. =:-O Thanks for contacting me privately asking why the comment disappeared so I could get it reinstated. Alas, nothing is perfect.

    Your joking remark about moving to Siberia reminded me of a book I bought several years ago — one I got sidetracked from reading at the time — just as I’ve been casting about for a good book to start in on. Just rummaged around and found it. It’s called The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia, by Sandy Krolnick, an American with Russian ancestry whose wife is Siberian. The book is about a few years the author spent living in the remote Siberian steppes, with his compiled notebook entries looking at the wide divergences in how life is experienced there compared to stateside. Think I’ll get back to reading it.

    He writes very well and, just now thumbing through the pages again to get a rough sense of the tenor of the book, the experience of that by itself is enough to recommend it. And that’s without even getting into what it appears he has to offer on the much more elemental Siberian life, culture, and philosophical outlook compared to the everyday onslaught we face here in America. I doubt they face much spam there, at least during the seasonal pilgrimages to their (likely off-the-grid) summer dachas. ;-) Perhaps the insights about small-village life might be relevant to your own blog project.

  4. Sandy used to come to my blog when I blogged regularly. He posts (I think still) at kulturcritic.wordpress.com. Good to know the book is good, I never did read it. He writes well! Thanks for the tip. He still lives in Siberia, in Bernaul, near the Altai range.

  5. Yeah, whether you term the current world economy a “Ponzi scheme” or my own go-to term of “zero-sum game,” things are definitely creeping ever-closer to the endgame with the progressive march toward extreme wealth inequalities and the steadily widening gulf between haves and have-nots. And not only worldwide but here in America.

    The elites “playing the planet like a board game,” as you put it, is spot-on. My take is that rather than purposely attempting to thin the ranks of worker bees, transnational corporations are acting primarily from ego-oriented power and greed in playing off different nations against each other as they scramble for a piece of the dwindling pie.

    There’s a saying known as Hanlon’s Razor to the effect of, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I think an equally valid variation on that is, “Be careful about ascribing to evil what can be better explained by ego or greed.” (Of course, I suppose that begs the question whether ego or greed may be just another guise evil can assume.) Whatever the motivation behind things, though, it’s surely increasing the economical “churn” and shredding rate that in turn lead to a rising spew of spam as side effect.

  6. Mmmm… can’t find the name or quote right now, but there is a counter-point to Hanlon’s Razor that goes “sometimes stupidity and malice are for all practical purposes indistinguishable.” In my bitter experience, malice is far more common than is widely assumed. Sometimes, it masquerades as stupidity by intention…

    As for the elites, I am sure they are not homogeneous, and there is a wide range of motives. But to be a person of wealth, power and influence, and to make SUCH a megamess of things? You gotta work at it.

    Spewing spam is just one small sign of desperation… there are many others. Just read a thoughtful analysis of who is making money off the migrants in Europe… it appears to be a giant transfer of wealth from the taxpayers to a tangled octopus of self-styled “refugee helpers” (such as the groups that run refugee camps, and so on), often private companies with complicated threads of ownership and massive profits.

    Here is another thought… if you have a moribund economy, one way to keep the pretense going is to create crises that create “jobs”.

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