Donald E. Knuth

Donald E. Knuth

In early 1990, programming hero and influential textbook author (“The Art of Computer Programming” in more or less four volumes so far), Donald Knuth wrote:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

I’ve only been using something like email since 1977, but I stayed with it longer all the time hoping for improvements. The promised improvements didn’t come from email really; more from the various email interfaces the best of which are still attempting to integrate “Activity Streams” and variously named productivity flows into the desktop in some meaningful manner. The first mistake is focusing on the desktop and on work.

Just as Xerox focused on a personal computer while — as Malcom Gladwell notices (behind a paywall at New Yorker) — Apple focused on a popular and affordable computer, email integration needs to so to where people both play and work, where they have family, friends and co-workers in some customizable way. And that means the most personal interfaces yet known — those on mobile devices.

In the meantime, I’m exploring other options with your help. When you or others contact me and where will help me decide where to put my communications energies and time.

Unlike Knuth, who handily handed off his email tasks to his secretary as he declared email abandonment, I’m divesting and looking for better, more efficient options.

3 Responses to “Don Knuth beat me to email divesting, but…”
  1. I congratulate you for avoiding the Sisyphean task of emptying your inbox. What I can’t figure out yet is when I get to do the same thing; I’ve only been on email since 1985, does that mean I need to stick it out 8 more years to qualify for retirement? Yikes.

  2. Paul says:

    I too have had email for 30+ years (or a messaging system similar), so the parting is bittersweet. Roger McGuinn singing an old chantey “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her” on this month’s Folkden.com about sailors coming to port and leaving the ship and the hard times there:

    “For the voyage is done and the winds donít blow,
    And itís time for us to leave her!”

    Time to roll up the sails and tie down the masts

    And now itís time to say goodbye
    Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her,
    Them pilings they is a-drawing nigh
    And itís time for us to leave her!

    I remember working with you in the 80s and was delighted to see you again on Twitter.

    My mailbox says: 1 – 25 of hundreds Yesterday I had only 150 messages. Time for mass deletion.

  3. I experimented for a while with a vacation message that said (enigmatically) “I may not have received your message, please call” which resulted in a few phone calls which were handy when it came time to actually get some things done promptly.

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