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Could we really do away with email? It’s worth a shot.

March 5, 2021, 3:09 PM UTC

There are lots of songs about dreams—impossible dreams, failed dreams, happy dreams, sad dreams. One of the best is the Cranberries song “Dreams” thanks to the haunting voice of the band’s lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. It’s also in a classic movie, You’ve Got Mail, the one where characters played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love via email.

There are a couple of problems with that premise nowadays—it doesn’t resonate at all with my kids—starting with the idea that you’re getting lovely, poetic messages in your email instead of ads for weight loss pills and lawn care service. The very view of email as a wonderful way to communicate is a dream that’s been lost.

At the conjunction of dreams and email in 2021, you’ll find computer scientist Cal Newport. The title of his latest book, A World Without Email, is meant not as a joke, but a call to action.

Tracing the history of email, Newport explains how something that was supposed to improve communication at work has become a distraction and a time suck. And he’s not a fan of the many more recent technological twists on email, like Slack or Teams, that are supposed to help. As we shift from task to task, app to app, and message to message, constantly interrupting ourselves, the workplace has become a “hyperactive hive mind,” he writes.

He highlights two simple reasons why the hyperactive hive mind is bad: It crushes productivity and it makes people miserable. “We’re just not wired to have this constant fiddling,” he explained to me when I talked to him about the book the other day. You can read the full interview here.

One key reason why the hyperactive hive mind exists, according to Newport, is that we tend to think of knowledge workers as independent actors. Thanks to Henry Ford, a factory worker may be micromanaged and instructed exactly how to perform their job even down to the second. But a lawyer or a programmer (or a journalist) is more likely to be assigned tasks and left to their own devices on getting things done. That may work on an individual level, but it can turn into a coordination nightmare at the company level, hence the flood of messages and emails trying to keep things on track.

The solution is to get more organized from the top down. Ford and others studied how to improve productivity and organize the factory floor. Now Newport and others are doing the same for knowledge work.

Apps like Trello and Airtable can be used to organize the big picture, with each worker allowed to focus on completing tasks while also keeping coworkers informed about their status, he explains. That can reduce the amount of back-and-forth messaging needed. He also welcomed Microsoft’s innovations like MyAnalytics that help people get organized (which I wrote about back in November). Companies doing knowledge work today “are like car companies still building cars in the (old) method,” Newport tells me. “Everyone’s doing it and it may be really convenient, but there’s a Henry Ford lurking.”

Hopefully, like the Cranberries song goes, for these dreams of the more productive and happier office, “They’ll come true, impossible not to do.”

Have a great weekend.

Aaron Pressman


Riding the waves. Investment firm Van Eck has a new fund, the Van Eck Vectors Social Sentiment Fund, which buys the stocks of companies that are getting a lot of attention on social media, you know, like Reddit. That's right, they've built a memeSTONKS fund. The ticker symbol, in case you didn't get it, is "BUZZ." What could possibly go wrong? I'm not sure it can outperform my idea for a new fund though. It's called the Especially Long Only Notions and Memes Under Supreme Kindness fund and it buys whatever the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX tweets about. My ticker: "ELON." Speaking of big dreams, Jesse Powell, CEO of crypto startup Kraken has a prediction for you: The price of bitcoin could hit $1 million in ten years. Maybe the cradle of memeSTONKS is growing up though. Reddit on Friday appointed a new chief financial officer, Drew Vollero, who has worked in that role at several public companies. Would r/WallStreetBets be long or short on that IPO?

Stock price is too high imo. Elsewhere on Wall Street, it's been a rough week for tech stocks (and most stocks, for that matter). Among the biggest losers over the past week are the so-called work from home stocks, with good news about vaccines equating to bad news for their prospects in the minds of investors. Zoom and Netflix have lost 6%, Peloton is down 9%, and Twitter dropped 11%. Among the largest tech stocks, things aren't so bad. Apple and Microsoft are down less than 1% over the past week, Amazon slipped 3%, and Google and Facebook gained 1%.

Back to the feature. On the subject of Twitter, the company finally seems to be arising from a strategic slumber to implement smart new features and services. The other day it was the "super follow." On Thursday night came leaks of an "undo send" feature. I'm not sure this is much better than deleting an errant tweet and it's not the edit button we need. Sigh.

Money, cash, Dorseys. The high-quality, artist-owned music streaming service Tidal has remained a niche player overshadowed by the giants like Apple Music and Spotify. I don't think Thursday's deal, with payments firm Square buying a controlling stake, will change that much. But giving artists the advantage of Square's tools for online customer outreach, retention, and monetization? No one's yet mentioned NFTs. Oops, I just did. That could really move the needle.

If I'm shining, everybody gonna shine. Columbia law professor and Big Tech critic Tim Wu is heading to Washington, D.C. President Biden named Wu to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for technology and competition policy. In case you aren't certain about Wu's views, his last book was called The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.


It's Friday and I need some inspiration. I found it in the story of Rebecca Murphey, an engineering manager at Stripe, who writes about her journey from young computer enthusiast to near-homeless newspaper intern to (eventually) successful coder and mom.

I can barely remember a time when computers weren’t a part of my life, but I know with certainty that that time existed, and that when computers first entered my life, they were exceptional and special. These days, of course, they’re ubiquitous. There’s a staggering quantity of computing power in a bin in my closet. When I’m sufficiently tired, I swipe at the pages of a printed book, and wonder why they don’t turn.

There is nothing special about computers for my seven-year-old. “Computer” describes just a few of the many unexceptional computing devices that litter the house. He doesn’t painstakingly type assembly from the back of a magazine. He’s caught off guard every time he can’t access the internet on his iPad when we’re driving in the car. To the extent that he’s intermittently interested in coding, it’s because he knows that it is part of my job, like I might have been interested in how eyeglasses get made when I was 7.


A few great long reads I came across this week:

Reddit: Organized Lightning (The Generalist)
One of social media's oldest companies is also its most undervalued.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s weed brand, Houseplant, is ready to light up America (Fast Company)
The weed is only available in California for now, but with an array of eclectic homeware also on offer, smoke is just the start.

How Supreme-Style Merch Drops Took Over Corporate America (Marker)
Why are massive brands and startups selling Tesla shorts, McDonald’s chicken nugget pillows, and Stouffer’s hoodies?

The Man Who Abandoned Value (Institutional Investor)
When Arne Alsin wrote about investing in disruptive companies two years ago, one commentator called it “one of the dumbest articles ever written.” After a 274 percent year, Alsin isn’t the one who looks dumb.


Researchers are peering inside computer brains. What they’ve found will surprise you By Jeremy Kahn

How Dish plans to outfox AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to build the cheapest 5G network By Aaron Pressman

Netflix pledges $5 million to train and mentor female filmmakers By Claire Zillman and Emma Hinchliffe

One hospital says telehealth has made its COVID vaccine rollout ‘three to four times more efficient’ By Grady McGregor

Apple’s App Store controls spark U.K. antitrust investigation By David Meyer

How ‘data alchemy’ could help businesses make the most of A.I. By François Candelon

What to expect from the fintech industry in 2021 By Xingjun Ni

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


While I was thinking about Cal Newport's new book and maybe rethinking some of my own work processes, I stumbled across an interview with MIT scientist and designer Neri Oxman. There is a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York coming up in May displaying some of her work making new use of materials found in nature. Oxman offers many ideas worth pondering in the interview. I'll leave you with this one on innovation:

I always tell my team that if you can measure it, it doesn’t count. You know you’ve reached innovation when you’re lonely. You know that you’re doing something new, pushing boundaries, when there’s no one or nothing against which to compare yourself.