Can Google innovate our way out of email overload?

There has been lots of coverage of Google’s new filters for G-mail which use algorithms to establish which emails are high priority and which aren’t – see the BBC online coverage here. If you believe that the Clay Shirky “it’s-not-information-overload- it’s filter-failure” premise applies to the issue of email overload, then you will welcome this innovation. Most of the expert commentators I have seen are unimpressed by this and make the point that this is about human behaviour rather than technology.

For my own part, I believe there are two aspects of human behaviour that mean email filtering – already available in a variety of forms – is not the solution: these are a) the compulsion to check all new messages, however trivial and b) the organisational tendency to use email for pieces of communication best suited to another medium. The first aspect of human behaviour is most apparent among users of BlackBerry and other devices – what another news item suggests to me is that the piece of innovation we really need is a better thumb. This is the first news coverage I have seen of “BlackBerry Thumb” – a US woman is recovering from surgery on her thumb after too much activity on her iPhone (I know, but “iPhone Thumb” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?). When humans first evolved reversible thumbs, it was a huge step forward when it came to handling tools, food etc. and helped set us apart from other primates. But it now looks as if the human thumb is no longer adequate for our 21st century environment. Are Google working on this also?

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