London has two major orbital roads – the North and South Circular roads that entrap the centre of the city, and the M25 the 100+mile behemoth that boundaries Greater London. To be inside or outside of the M25 these days is the statement of how London you really are.

In my childhood I vaguely remember the opening of the completed M25. It took years to complete, and was opened in disconnected sections until eventually they were all joined up. And at that point you were able to speed around the capital at motorway speeds.

Unfortunately that motoring idyll wasn’t to last for long. The trouble with building roads that follow routes upon which people want to travel is that they generate demand. The more you build, it seems, the more traffic you create. And so it has been with the M25 – perpetual road building to increase capacity that increases demands that maintains the road as London’s largest open-air car park.

Google’s new “Inbox” user interface for email is the arterial road building of the tech world. The product, currently in invitation-only Beta, aims to lessen the challenges of email by using technology to make machines make smarter decisions about what to present in front of you. To increase your capacity to deal with the email deluge, if you will.

The problems with email are multiple: it’s not secure or controlled,
; it has reliability issues; vast resources are devoted to clearing it of spam; it has limitations that don’t match with our big-data era; there are multiple assumptions made by people that conflict about how and when others will respond; the language used in email has been dehumanised through it’s use by machines as a notification mechanism; the list goes on…

But it’s got one really big advantage that has led to its rise as the collaboration platform above all others: it’s an open(ish) standard to which large proportions of the internet population have access. That’s why it has become so all encompassing: everyone has it.

But email, and email programmes, are collaboration built around the individual, not the group. Email, I’d argue, might make some individuals more productive, but it makes the majority (and the whole) less so. Ask most office workers what’s at the top of their list of “shit that gets in the way of me doing my job” and email will be there or thereabouts – as it was a decade ago. There’s progress.

Initiatives like Inbox won’t solve the problem – they’ll make it worse. Sure there might be a short productivity burst for some as they get a competitive advantage over others. But then everyone else will catch up and we’ll have even greater capacity to deal with even more email. More efficient doesn’t automatically mean more effective.

There are plenty of technical tools in which we can work with others. Unfortunately, unlike email, almost all of them are proprietary and therein lies one of the adoption problems. But there’s an awful lot of unlearning to do with email (just witness how many files still get forwarded around even though there are a million and one other ways one can share files these days) – and putting an intelligent UI on top of email isn’t going to address that (un)learning.

One thought on “The M25 of Tech

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