The Tyranny of Email (2011) is about the rise and unprecedented power of email as a form of communication, and the profound effect it has on our lives. We have more access to communication now than at any other time in history; but not everything about email is positive.
Powerful groups of people have sought to control the flow of information throughout human history. For a long time, only governments and the Catholic Church had the tools to dispense information on a large scale.
Empires and governments have been using communication as means to consolidate their power since antiquity. In the Persian Empire, for example, messages could be sent by horse at the speed of 100 miles per day – as early as 600 BC! A new horse had to be switched in along the route at every postal stop.
The Abbasid Caliphate had over 900 postal stops in 860 AD, and Caliph Abu Jalbar Mansur once said in a speech that a faithful postmaster was just as important as the Chief of Police or the Minister of Finance.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church issued major doctrinal rulings or political decisions by disseminating scrolls all across Europe.
Common people, on the other hand, didn’t have access to long-distance communication until the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, in in the year 1500 in Britain, only five to ten percent of the adult population could even read or write.
Sending mail was very costly, too. For just one letter, you needed paper (which was expensive at the time), silk to wrap it in, wax to seal it and access to an official sign. Sending a letter over 400 miles cost about a fifth of the average daily wage as late as 1800.
Things were further complicated by the fact that people didn’t have fixed addresses. An American woman once addressed a letter to her brother by writing, “To my most noble brother, Mr. John Miles Breton, at Ye barber shoppe which lieth in the land hard against ye tavern of Ye Great Square in shadow of Ye Towne Hall.” With addresses like that, it was often hard for letters to end up in the right place!