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The Week

Give up e-mail? Duh. It’s one of the few places where surprises still lurk Add to ...

I feel a bit sorry for Janet Napolitano, which isn’t a familiar sentiment. After all, she’s the head of Homeland Security in the U.S. and, as such, she pretty much decides how much mouthwash I can have in my purse when I fly to the States and whether I’ll get the full airport patdown or just the demi-humiliation (shoes and belt off; underwear intact).

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Ms. Napolitano declared this week that she doesn’t use e-mail. You could have knocked me over with a feather – or a taser, since we’re talking airport security. “I think e-mail just sucks up time,” she told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “In a job like mine, it’s inefficient.”

Instead, her staff get information to her “in a variety of ways.” I imagine a quaking intern approaching her with a note on a silver salver every time there’s a report in The New York Times about immigrant detainees being kept in solitary confinement. I’m pretty sure they don’t fight over the privilege: “You give it to her.” “No, you.” “No, you. I gave her the one about the shoe bomber.”

Still, I can’t help but wonder about the paucity of e-mail in Ms. Napolitano’s life. How does she know when they’ll be serving the cake for Larry, who’s retiring to run a private contracting service in Benghazi? How will she know when there’s a tooth-whitening offer for her and eight of her friends? (Two words: John Kerry.)

Of course, she has minions to sift and tote information for her. Not having e-mail is a sign of great privilege, kind of like the Queen not carrying money or Justin Bieber never wearing a shirt. Using e-mail and money, or indeed hiding your skinny white chest from the stricken eyes of passersby, is a clear sign you belong to the labouring underclass.

I know we’re supposed to loathe e-mail. I know that McKinsey Global told us that the average American spends 28 per cent of the work week handling e-mail, and that this is grossly inefficient, and that the drone slave bees – sorry, employees – could be milked for an ounce or two more productivity if they weren’t so distracted by their inboxes.

The French information giant Atos is in the process of eliminating internal e-mails, which pretty much ensures that no one at that company will ever know who’s zooming who in accounting, or whether the boss has toilet paper on her shoe, or who left the headlights on on his Peugeot. Good luck to you, Atos, and be prepared for a peevish and dispirited staff. Useless e-mail is the lifeblood of the workplace.

Where would we be without the daily treasures found in our inboxes? I would have missed my invitation to become a “thrillionaire” on a televised scavenger hunt, which involved “highly participatory sight-doing experiences.” I might never have known about the book arguing that the Large Hadron Collider will soon set off a cataclysmic eruption in Yellowstone National Park.

I might never have known about Mr. Maki, the nice Japanese gentleman from the steel company and his tantalizing job offer: “We like to merge with the company to increased revenue. We would like to retain you to represent us as our United State attorney for the transaction.” Although, having studied my work closely, he admitted, “this may not be your area of specialty.” And just as I was lamenting the lack of fiery power tools my whole family could use, I got an e-mail from Jenny, “a lovely girl whom you can count on,” who wanted me to buy a welding torch, “ideal for family use.”

I’m only half-joking here (my needle is permanently set on half-joking, unfortunately; I went to a mechanic once, but there was nothing he could do). E-mail provides one of the last pockets of serendipity in life: In an increasingly programmed world, it’s one of the few places where surprises lurk. You just have to avoid the messages that come from your boss, human resources or anyone you once shared a bottle of Southern Comfort with while Metallica was playing.

I recently interviewed the British philosopher and psychotherapist Adam Phillips and, after a lovely conversation about covetousness and Philip Larkin, I offered to send him a link to the article when it was published. “You can’t,” he said. “I don’t have e-mail.” I was torn between envying him (he has 17 books to his name) and feeling sorry for him (I may not have any books, but I do have an e-mail from a “person” named Crimea Sisterhood). Most people envy his lack of connection, he told me with a laugh, although he doesn’t know anyone who’s followed his lead and cut the cord.

Sometimes I think of Dr. Phillips lying on his leather couch, reading Diderot or Montaigne, undisturbed by the ping of e-mail, not tempted to check whether Yellowstone National Park blew up overnight and whether the Large Hadron Collider had something to do with it. But what if he ever needed a child-sized welding torch? He wouldn’t know where to turn.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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