This month’s Interactions magazine had several articles that reminded me once again how strange the world I inhabit really is. Three of the articles took up what, to me, seems normal, the immediate delivery of email, and a world in which a response to that delivery often expected.
Phoebe Sengers wrote about email in her discussion of her time spent living in Change Island, Newfoundland. An experience that caused her to reflect on a variety of values that frame her life in Ithaca but that were different to those abundant in Change Islands (she says this far more gracefully than I do). She describes a vision of email where users can control the speed at which it is sent, slowing down conversations, making them potentially both more manageable and more meaningful.
Susan Wyche’s piece on HCI4D and design takes up email again, as it is exchanged by Kenyan’s working in Nairobi with American co-workers. As she reports, Kenyan workers felt concerned that their American colleagues would perceive a delay in responding to email as a poor work ethic rather than being due to their lack of Internet connectivity. They felt the burden of trying to manage expectations of their American colleagues, and struggled with this. In this case one side was slowed down by infrastructure, but the other party in the exchange was not, and the values associated with managing email correspondence favoured (and derived from) infrastructure rich environments.
Marshini Chetty et al’s piece does not take up email directly, but highlights how business arrangements influence the use of infrastructure and the applications atop it. Countries that offer Internet plans for home users that are not sold by the speed of the pipe (as they are in the United States) but by how much people upload and download over the course of the month, shape how people choose to use the Internet. Managing those figures so that access to the Internet is preserved for an entire month (if caps are exceeded unless there’s an option to buy more data, its either a shift to a slower or no bandwidth) influences what people choose to do with their home Internet access, which must include email (perhaps especially the attachments).
In 2002 a paper by Lucy Suchman appeared, subtitled “Notes from the Hyperdeveloped World“. Although she focuses on a far broader set of flows, I can’t help feeling that these three articles provide an example of a small part of her argument, how values framed in contexts of unlimited ability to send email have been exported, by us, to places where they do not hold. And this reminds me of something that Gary Marsden once said, isn’t it about time we started designing for normal people.