It saves all those tedious phone calls and allows us to spend even more time welded to our computer screens, giggling at weak jokes. Email has become the communication method of choice for a whole tranche of our industry.
"I'm a user, but I could give up at any time – honest," we say. "I only use it for recreational purposes really," or even: "It helps me get through the working day."
Hmm. It sounds to me like email is becoming dangerously addictive. Maybe this is not something to worry about. It's not as though it's doing any physical damage to our bodies, after all – unless you believe all those cranks who insist that radiation from computer screens is inexorably penetrating and affecting our brains. Or the folk who believe that staring at a VDU all day causes eye-strain. Or the whingers who complain that sitting too long in an office chair gives them backache, or that typing causes RSI (repetitive strain injury) … So, our health is entirely unaffected by this growing indulgence, obviously.
What gets me, really, I suppose, is that so much email traffic is completely unnecessary. Does every single person in a company really need to know that Lucy in accounts has lost an earring? Is it sensible to use an email system to ask for someone's whereabouts because there's a phone call on the first floor? Or to find out what's on the menu for lunch?
People are expected to respond to that annoying beep that alerts them to the arrival of an email immediately, regardless of whatever task they're currently pursuing.
The worrying thing is that people are happier using a keyboard than a telephone. I recently received an email from a colleague two floors down asking "Are you in today?" Now, why said colleague couldn't pick up the phone to ask the question is completely beyond me – surely it's simpler, quicker and much more likely to get an immediate response than an email (at which point, I have to admit that I emailed back "No, this is a hologram").
Perhaps we are becoming increasingly reluctant to have anything to do with genuine human interaction, choosing to interface with a machine, rather than – Heaven forbid! – actually talk to another person.
As I've said in this column before, there are so many things that can be conveyed via a conversation that are just not possible in electronic means – no matter how many smiling, winking or frowning character faces are used.
For dissemination of information, email systems are great – particularly if set up and used with a certain amount of rigour. Email conferences or noticeboards that list forthcoming events, or provide a forum for debate about current technical issues, or even allow requests for advice are genuinely useful tools, but it's no good if they're not known about, or misused (Lucy could have limited her lost earring plea just to the accounts department, for example).
Conversely, too many refinements on offer can lead to "option paralysis" as users are confronted with a whole tree of folders to access.
The best thing about email must be its ability to allow dissemination of vast amounts of complex information to large numbers of people within a short space of time. Lengthy documents that would otherwise take time (not to mention money) to photocopy, issue and post, can be sent down the line in the blink of an eye. Drawings can be exchanged between team members relatively quickly. Information exchange can be done entirely via email, with very little pain.
Which brings me to my last niggling worry – tracking and storage of information. In an industry that relies on accurate information in order to build things, can this wealth of data be managed as successfully in soft form, such as a digital file, as it can in hard form, such as a piece of paper? There's something rather nebulous about an email – if you're not copied, you don't know it's been sent and there's no opportunity for finding out by spotting interesting bits of correspondence on colleagues' desks.
It seems that older messages are auto-archived (as far as I can see, computer speak for "chucked in the bin") after 100 days. The paperless office is all very well as an ideal, but I for one can't help but think that there's a certain solid reassurance to bulging manila folders, letter-headed paper, and real ink signatures.
So yes, I'm a user, but I don't rely on it – no, really, I don't.