Study Hacks Blog

On the Utility Fallacy

May 6th, 2019 · 20 comments
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

A few years ago, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review’s website about the excesses of email culture. In an effort to destabilize the perceived necessity of our current moment of hyperactive communication, I explored a thought experiment in which email was banished altogether and replaced with pre-scheduled office hours.

“Office hours might not work for every organization,” I wrote, “although, as I’ve argued, they would probably apply in more settings than you might at first assume.”

Given the semi-satirical undertones of this exploration, I gave a nod toward Swift in the article’s title: “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”

I’m bringing this up now because a reader recently pointed me to a Reddit thread from last month that discusses this older piece. Overall, the thread is varied and fascinating. I want to highlight here, however, a few comments that I think are representative of a general line of resistance I often encounter — usually from fellow engineering types — when I write negatively about new technologies:

  • “…people seem to severely underestimate how valuable it is to search past conversations, not to mention having a timestamp of when assignments and decisions got made”
  • “I am totally with you here. Email is THE SUPERIOR tool for communication. People simply lack the discipline to manage their inbox.”
  • “Having lower cost, lower friction communication is an absolute positive development.”

These points are an example of what I’ve come to call the utility fallacywhich is the tendency, when evaluating the impact of a technology, to confine your attention to comparing the technical features of the new technology to what it replaced.

From this perspective, email is self-evidently better than the memos, voicemails, and fax machines that it superseded.

But as I’ve learned in my years thinking and writing about such issues, when it comes to consumer-facing technologies, the more important story is almost always how they end up mutating our socio-cultural dynamics.

No one argues, for example, that it’s better to send an email than a fax. But the modern knowledge worker now sends 125 business emails a day, which works out to one every 3.85 minutes — vastly more back-and-forth communication than what was common in the pre-email era. One could certainly argue that this new behavior is not “better” in any useful sense.

You could retort that knowledge workers are, en mass, acting stupidly when using this new tool, and if they’d simply talk to an enlightened engineer about inbox management we’d all be fine. But I find this explanation both unlikely and condescending.

More plausible is the hypothesis that the introduction of low-friction communication disrupted the finely-tuned dynamical system mediating inter-personal office interactions, creating both unpredictable and unfortunate results (c.f., Leslie Perlow’s work on the cycle of responsiveness).

I’ve noticed a similar conflict in recent discussions about social media. When viewed through the lens of the utility fallacy, these tools are unambiguously good at allowing people to connect with each other and share information with minimum effort.

But this observation misses the fact that almost everything interesting about our current struggles with social media concerns the impact of these tools on our lives beyond the screen.

The point too often missed in a cooly instrumentalist understanding of technology is that we don’t use these tools in a vacuum; we instead participate in complicated social systems that can careen in unforeseen directions when powerful new technological forces are introduced. Features are important, but they’re not the whole story.

20 thoughts on “On the Utility Fallacy

  1. Corporate email has evolved its own social media / chat room. We keep the inbox open on our desktops, monitoring the feed in real time, scanning and responding randomly throughout the day. One of the many side effects is that leadership has suffered. “Leadership” happens now through endless chains of direct and carbon copied emails versus personal conversation. As Trump would tweet : VERY SAD!!!!!

  2. Simmy says:

    Interesting observation Dr.Cal, this may not be entirely relevant to your post, but I feel there shouldn’t be a need for excessive email conversations if we are truly productive and our messages are constructed properly. In Asian culture, most forgo emails actually, and rely heavily on texting app (such as watsapp), If messages aren’t replied, say within an hour, clients get agitated. I personally set aside a time to batch reply messages (muting the notification), but I still find the need to turn it on on the occasions of an appointment or meet up, because people often prefer to text than call. I’ve also noticed, with the convenience of instant texting, people are less inclined to show up on time, or change meet up time at very last minute notice. (I’m doomed if I don’t check for text whenever I’m about to meet up with someone, chances are, they’re either late, or they’d send me a text saying “let’s meet at 2.30 instead of 2pm, at exaggeration here)

    1. So true about the meet-ups/texting.

    2. John W. says:

      This misses the point; you’ve simply replaced email with chat, which can be even more disruptive to employees.

      Do you think that chat is the superior mode of communication? Can you argue for chat while not making the utility-fallacy-argument?

  3. Alex says:

    If you look up the source of the numbers, it would seem that the average worker RECEIVES 121 e-mails per day, and SENDS some 40 (according to that study from the Radicati group). It is still a huge amount of noise, but at least it does make more sense — simply composing 100+ mails would take up the entire work day. Scanning one that you received, and deleting it straight away … not so much.

    1. Satvik B Shah says:

      A very important observation. Thanks.

  4. Briar says:

    I do think we have to examine utility if it can do something that no other system can do. For example, I have the ability to compose an email at 2 am, and send it to you six hours later at an appropriate time for you to open it. This isn’t about the superiority of use, it’s about function.

    As a night owl who works remotely, sometimes there aren’t times during standard business hours when I can communicate with clients. Email is the only system I have found that allows me to work on my time, while still being respectful of yours.

    1. Likewise, Briar …. well said.

  5. Mark O says:

    The issue is not that email, text, IM or anything else is bad, its just a tool. The difficulties are caused by a workforce who never learns to communicate properly utilizing any of those methods.

    1. Wern says:

      I really can’t think of another hypothesis then

      “… is just a tool” and its many variations in modern society:
      “email is a just a tool”
      “digital photography is just a tool”
      “social media is just a tool”
      which has been so utterly and completely disproved.
      Its actually the whole point of the article, I wont repeat the arguments here. Studies about how different tools have changed whole societies and with it humanity are too numerous to cite. You could build whole libraries around them.

      1. Stephanie says:

        You have it absolutely right!
        There is nothing such as a neutral tool or technology.
        It is always a bargain as Neil Postman used to say: “technology giveth and technology taketh away”

  6. Anon says:

    Hi Cal and readers! I’m a regular reader/commenter posting anonymously in this case. I’m a student who has just started my first office-type job. I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but it’s a bit hard as I don’t yet HAVE any major responsibilities; most of what I do is rather simple admin with little margin for improvement. I try to do it as well and quickly as possible, and improve things where I can, but I was wondering if you have any tips for excelling in a starting-out role?

    1. EA says:

      Anon, observe, observe, and observe. Understand that most things don’t happen randomly. If you’re in proximity of the leadership, try to understand their needs and WHY (ex. most ppl think that longer documents are better; I found out quickly that the shorter the document/memo the better… even Churchill complained about memo’s length). Then do what you are supposed to do the best you can. And ask questions to your supervisors, inquire. It might not be clear now, but many of the good things you learn and you get used to do will be transferable whenever you take a few steps up the leadership ladder. Heck, even office/cubicle organization is an art in itself.

  7. khan says:

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  8. Roman Leventov says:

    It appears to me like another manifestation of Jevons paradox. A great challenge which is also present in flights, energy consumption, computing, etc. We should strive to design empowering technology that is immune to Jevons paradox.

  9. Joel says:

    Totally agree Cal. Technologies like email are feature rich, but we have to question the benefits (or sometimes lack thereof). Sending emails for their own sake has become a social reflex, increasing noise, but not necessarily signal.

  10. John W. says:

    Cal, I think there’s a word missing at the start of the fourth paragraph following the bullet points. Right now that sentence doesn’t make sense because people do argue that it’s better to send email than to fax. Maybe you intended to write “no one argues that it’s not better to send email…”

  11. Nora Allen says:

    The issue isn’t that email, text, IM or the rest is unhealthy, its simply a tool. The difficulties are caused by a force WHO ne’er learns to speak properly utilizing any of these ways.

  12. Dustin Janz says:

    Email has become the preeminent mode of communication in business these days to the detriment of actual face to face collaboration. We need to actually talk to each other if we want to truly solve the larger problems our society faces. What’s scary is that now our teenagers are doing most of their communicating with Pictures and Emoji’s and very soon even the use of words will be a thing of the past.

  13. ??? ????? says:

    If you look up the source of the numbers, it would seem that the average worker RECEIVES 121 e-mails per day, and SENDS some 40 (according to that study from the Radicati group). It is still a huge amount of noise, but at least it does make more sense — simply composing 100+ mails would take up the entire work day. Scanning one that you received, and deleting it straight away … not so much.

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