The day our email crashed we didn’t notice it at first. You don’t – well, not to begin with, anyway. All we noticed was that it was an unusually productive day. Nobody was chasing us, and it was blissful. We got through our list, things got crossed off quicker, miles and miles of lines through chores. This is a good day, we thought, if only they could all be like this. We knew no better, despite years of experience which told us that if something seems too good to be true, there’s only one logical explanation.
Working in a big office involves a complicated equilibrium – you do things for others which you don’t much want to do, and in turn other people do things for you which they’d rather not. That sums up most interactions that don’t involve food or hot beverages. The day our email crashed was a day we mistook for that most magical of days, one when we could do all the telling and none of the being told. The radio silence was the thing that was really telling: we could compose all the begging letters or rousing calls to arms we liked, but nobody was replying. Could it be that they were rendered dumb by our elegant phrasing? We tried to fool ourselves that they had, but soon we worked it out. The lines of communication had been cut.
Initially, it was a novelty. We asked around. Instant messenger windows popped up across the company. ’Is your email working?’ ‘Let me check. No, nothing since lunchtime. Yours?’ ‘I’m okay but Steve is having problems.’ By hometime a not very extensive survey had scientifically established that some people had problems and some people didn’t. The people with problems envied the people without them, and the people who didn’t have problems envied the people who did. It wasn’t important, though, because by five-thirty the only problem anyone had was still being at their desk. We got in our cars, on our trains and our buses and we thought Never mind, it will all be fixed by the morning.
On the first day without email our company sent out a notification that we were experiencing email problems. But they did it by email, so lots of people didn’t get it.
On the second day without email we came in, looked at our screens and realised nothing had changed overnight. We thought of all the things we really needed done, and all the people who really needed to do them for us. We bit the bullet and signed into the clunky internet version our company had made available in case of emergencies – emergencies which had never happened, a virtual fallout shelter. Everything was in the wrong place, you couldn’t find anything and you couldn’t track when you sent things. It was like going back to your house to find that all the furniture had been moved, often into different rooms. You knew it was all there somewhere, but you’d never track any of it down.
On the second day without email we looked at our disrupted house, full of boxes of mystery contents we couldn’t bear to unpack, and we sighed.
“How do I access the webmail?” said Patricia, the tall fragrant PA who sits at the cluster of desks behind me.
“Here, you do it like this.” I said, going over to her desk and showing her. She looked at the screen with an expression approximating to despair.
“It’s not good, is it?”
“Not really, no. It reminds me of an ex I once had - it’s not the prettiest, and it never goes down on you.”
One day of limited interaction with people and already I’d forgotten how to behave; Patricia’s appalled grimace told me that.
By lunchtime, the novelty was gone for good. All we could think of was all the emails we hadn’t received, building up, building up, sitting somewhere out there in the ether, a sinister stack of demands waiting to break against our inbox like a tidal wave. If that wasn’t bad enough we also worried about all the things we needed people to do that weren’t getting done. Not that we could even work out what they were – the internet mail made that almost impossible. By the afternoon, you could tell who had a good to do list and who didn’t, who was quietly smug and who was horrified, disorganised, panic-stricken.
The IM windows kept on flashing. ’Mine’s working on my Blackberry but not on my computer.’ ‘Mine’s not working anywhere.’ ‘I don’t have a problem.’ That last group of people was missing the point – when nobody can reply to your mails, however well written they are, you still have a problem, even if you don’t know it. People like that, the complacent, are the worst: no doubt everybody deleted their mails without reading them anyway, even when everything was working fine.
It spread like an illness, and we gossiped like pensioners in a nursing home. ’I hear David’s come down with it now.’ We grumbled like them too. ’It’s been giving me nothing but trouble all day.’
On the second day without email we took to Facebook to complain. “I might as well be sending people things by carrier pigeon,” mine said. “My email wants to work even less than I do.” Soon it had a phalanx of ‘likes’ and comments underneath from people in the same boat. Starved of opportunities to communicate, we used every channel that was left. Time became elastic, stretched out of shape and losing all meaning: the time from nine a.m. to half-five was still the same number of hours as it ever was, but by the time hometime came we felt like we had worked for two solid days.
On the third day without email, we rued the pints and the glasses of wine we hadn’t had the night before. We realised that if there was ever a day you could turn up nursing a hangover, it was the day that our email was hung over too. Not that you could even describe it as that: it was still missing in action, out on a bender. On the third day we all wished we’d brought in board games, like the last day of school, or had the courage to nip out to the pub at lunchtime. We didn’t, though: even though there was nothing we could do, and everything took ages, we still felt Catholic guilt about being away from our desks. So we sat there, hitting refresh, long past the point where any of this was refreshing.
At the end of the third day, we couldn’t have cared less. It was a Friday, and we had better things to do. We went to the pub, we went to the supermarket. We went home, and we checked our emails, watched those bold black lines springing up at the top of the screen and remembered what that felt like. We thought that tomorrow was another day, a day without email, and that it was somebody else’s problem, and that Monday would be fine. Actually, we didn’t think about Monday at all – the unhappy ones not until Saturday afternoon, the normal ones not until Sunday evening and the blessed ones not until 9am, when the screen fired up and we remembered that we’re meant to work for a living.
On the fourth day without email, something we didn’t think possible: it spread. Conversations sprung up everywhere, IM windows popping up, ’What’s it like where you are? It reminded me of the snow, people comparing inches of snowfall, telling people they couldn’t leave their houses, Facebook pictures of driveways, thickly and pristinely carpeted, picture perfect snowmen in the garden. Instead we were virtually snowed in - ironically enough, by the complete absence of white noise.
The fourth day was the longest of all, but had learned some tricks so we made it work in our favour. Everything that was fun took longer: every trip to the kitchen to make tea was a thirty minute round trip, with laughter and complaints and jokes. Everyone had a story, and everyone else wanted to hear it. No Instant Messenger conversation was about work, and all of them were strictly necessary. Ann, who sits in the central bay, told me a bunch of scurrilous stories about the person who used to run our company, and I thanked my lucky stars I had enough time on my hands to make the most of them. I changed my Facebook status to say that if I got much better at inventing work and looking busy without anything to do, a career in senior management beckoned. Nearly all the “likes” were from colleagues I liked enough to have added them as friends.
I changed my Instant Messenger status to say “PETER FINCH DAY” but nobody understood.
“What does that mean?” said Susan, working from home. Susan – prim, kind, churchgoing, even-tempered.
“It’s a reference to a famous speech in a film called Network.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Oh, he basically rants that he’s had enough.”
“I can understand that – I’m really pissed off.”
On the fourth day, Susan was pissed off with something. I can’t put it more strongly than that.
We got to that point in our To Do lists we never wanted to reach, the “Never Do” list tacked on the bottom, the jobs we left until three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, desperately hoping to get a phone call that would give us an excuse to avoid it. We reached the tidying and rationalisation, the documents we’d been meaning to read, the conversations we’d been avoiding, the timebombs ticking in our intrays, the stones we’d planned never to lift. We got close to the section at the very bottom of the list, with the silent heading saying I pray to God I get a new job before I ever have to do this. We looked at that part of the list, and it scared us, and we went to get another coffee.
We had suppliers in, and my colleague Carla had to walk them over to her desk and show them the screen of her laptop. “Here’s the email you’re going to receive at some point in the future”, she said, “Would you mind trying to do something about it now?” We were beyond the point of being embarrassed, by then, and this was just something people without email did. I remembered my first days in an office, in 1996, when all the power rested with the person who could operate the fax machine, and I wondered if we still had a fax machine somewhere. I remembered the first time I had access to email you could use to contact people who worked for a different company, in Coopers & Lybrand in 1997, and how unbelievable that felt then. From magical to mundane, in only fifteen years.
On the fourth day without email I took the early bus to the station, because there hardly seemed any point staying. Nobody told me off. I’m told the company sent out an email providing an update on their attempts to fix the problem. Everybody who didn’t receive it thought of a creative, richly-worded way not to reply.
On the fifth day without email, none of us could believe that we’d got to a fifth day. The situation was better, but for many of us only half our mails were getting through. Best of all, we proved that we’d learned something: we replied when we wanted to, and pretended not to have received anything when we didn’t. Getting half your emails, we had concluded by lunchtime, was infinitely better than getting none at all and twice as good as getting all of them.
I wrote Question Of The Day on the whiteboard: Barbra Streisand or Neil Diamond? and on the fifth day people talked almost as much about that as they did about email. I went round to Iain’s desk, loaded up YouTube and played him Peter Finch’s speech from Network, and I realised how much I like it when Iain laughs. By then the office felt like a difference place – kinder, more engaged, more of a community. The collective rolling of eyes, the bitching in the queue at the canteen, the conversations while holding open doors and the wry grins as we tried to coax our laptops into life. By the fifth day we were a we, not just a collection of Is, and I should have known then that it wouldn’t last.
At the end of the fifth day, I stopped to pick up a coffee in the station and I told Paul all about it. He frothed the milk and shook the jug and poured it, expertly and elegantly, into the waiting cup.
“It’s been such an odd experience. I swear at my laptop all day, and I go home and the first thing I do is fire up my computer at home. You’re lucky not to have all of this.”
“I know, sir,” said Paul. He always calls me ‘sir’, however often I tell him not to. He’s just old-fashioned like that. One time, I asked him whether he had a jar for tips, because they all do such a good job, and he just smiled at me and said “No, sir, we don’t. Because we’re not American.”
“Presumably you use a computer when you’re not at work, though?”
“Not really, no. Never really been into them. Do you know that in China they actually treat it as an addiction?”
Paul is a rich source of information like this: I’m not sure how someone who doesn’t use a computer has managed to accumulate so much knowledge. Maybe he does it through other, nefarious, means like talking to people. Once, he told me there was a town in Australia that looked almost exactly like Bracknell – even though to my incredible disappointment, I wasn’t able to find any pictures online which backed up his theory.
“I can imagine. But the thing is, there is something compelling about it. It’s like Twitter – you can look at something like Twitter and it’s a river of information. A constant torrent of facts and opinions, whooshing past you, always something different, always something new, and it’s just fascinating. Disposable, yet fascinating. New stories break on Twitter, information passes across the world like a Mexican wave and it’s an amazing thing to watch. So I can understand that being hard to leave, even though you know it doesn’t have any permanence.”
Paul, sage but silent, gave me a little smile which may have been incomprehension but was probably pity, and he handed me my perfect latte. And I realised I was talking to the wrong man about this, because Paul was not interested in rivers. Paul was more about lakes, about books, about deep immersion in something or nothing at all. I was trying to sell Wikipedia to a Britannica man, and I was wasting his time.
“Have a good evening. Hope you enjoys.” he said to me.
Our email came back on the sixth day. Irony of ironies, I was out of the office with my boss when it happened. He drove us to another building, on another industrial estate, to talk to people working for another company. Another set of objectives about to be failed, another office joker, another office jobsworth, another set of in-jokes and customs and coffee mugs. A place just like mine, only with email, or so I thought. On the way back he hared down the motorway, sometimes one-handed, mobile glued to one ear and I looked at the grey dreary road ahead and tried to make personal conversation with him in between his conference calls. Despite a week of practice at that kind of thing, it had become no easier.
I returned to find things subtly different. People were at their desks rather than loitering in kitchens and corridors. They were tapping away, flicking between applications, copying and pasting. The illusion of competence and commitment had been restored almost so completely that you could believe that nothing had changed. But I could sense something else about the atmosphere, too, something new. Everyone was looking at their screens with confusion, metaphorically scratching their heads, catching up, trying to remember how we are all supposed to work. I knew even then that as they did so, they would forget some things in the process, and I thought that was a pity.
I wondered what to compare it to and I realised that the closest thing I could come up with was how people are when they first return to work after a holiday. I suppose, in the end, that’s almost exactly what had happened. Even if nobody quite appreciated it at the time.