Why I never use email

Prospect Magazine

Why I never use email


The internet just slows us all down


Brring brring: “Are you listening in on my private conversation?” © Vetta

I shall soon be the only EMV (email virgin) left in the country. I have never sent an email, though I’ve occasionally cheated and asked my teenage son to do so for me. Nor have I ever used the internet. I am no more capable of going online than I am of getting to Saturn. I don’t know how to text. I do have a mobile phone, but it’s immobile. I never take it out of the house, for fear of triggering some ridiculous trend in which hordes of people march down the street bawling into these sinister little gadgets. If you allowed people to use mobile phones in public, you might end up being forced to listen to them on trains and in cafes, asking noisily whether the invoices have arrived. The prospect is too appalling to contemplate. The only time I might conceivably have needed a mobile phone outside the house was when I once turned my car over in the Irish mountains and was trapped inside the vehicle for a while. When a passer-by did finally try to use a phone, however, it didn’t work, since the mountains were too high. Hanging upside down like a gigantic bat, my chest crushed painfully against the air bag, I felt quietly vindicated.

I have, however, hit on an unbeatable way of taking my revenge on the “Have the invoices arrived yet?” brigade. Whenever I sit on a train, I place a small banana on the table before me. If I find myself opposite someone who forces me to listen to his boring, brain-rotting conversation, I give a loud “brring brring.” Then I pick up the banana and conduct a deafening pseudo-dialogue of soul-killing dullness. If the person opposite protests that I’m sending him up, I ask him in affronted tones whether he has been listening in on my private conversation.

My resistance to email didn’t start out as a protest. It’s just one aspect of my general technological backwardness. I was cleaning my teeth with a twig long after the invention of toothbrushes, and using a typewriter long after everyone else had switched to a computer. “But how do you revise stuff?” they would ask me. “Revise?” I would reply incredulously, one eyebrow superciliously cocked. Showers are a bit of a problem as well. I usually wait for it to rain and then dash out and roll around on the front lawn.

Nowadays, however, protest is most definitely what my email virginity has become. I am living proof that all this frenetic, mostly vacuous, communication is quite superfluous. We all survived without it before it started, and I personally have survived without it ever since. If people really want to contact me, they write. If they can’t be bothered, or have forgotten how to do it, or imagine that writing disappeared with Norman Wisdom and drainpipe trousers, that’s their problem. Besides, email is surely just a passing fad. My own prediction is that it will be over by next Christmas and everyone will then revert to my own state of technological chastity.

In my view, the internet is really an anti-modern device for slowing us all down, returning us to the rhythms of an earlier, more sedate civilisation.  In the frantic, fast-moving years before Apple and Google, you would ask for a hotel room and the clerk would just write your name down in a book. It was all over in 20 seconds. These days you ask for a room and the receptionist starts to type a chapter of his novel. Once he has inserted one or two rather elaborate subplots and added a few complex new characters, he remembers what he is supposed to be doing and hands you your room key.

Language is first of all a way of being with other people, and only secondarily a way of getting things done. This is why the paradigm of human communication is not the public relations agency but the pub. Steve Jobs’s last words are said to have been: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!” Thinking back to King Lear, it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost. My only problem now is how to get this piece to the editor.

Follow Prospect on Facebook and Twitter

Terry Eagleton: What I’d do if I ruled the world

In defence of emoticons

The age of the troll

  1. June 20, 2013

    eero iloniemi

    Why is it offensive to blather on the phone in trains, but perfectly acceptable for people to blather face to face on the same train?

    • June 20, 2013


      A few reasons. For one, people talking on phones in public places like trains often speak much louder than they do in a face-to-face conversation. But worse is how distracting it is to hear only half of the conversation. Part of our linguistic capability depends on anticipation — the way we’ll think along with our interlocutor and fill in the gaps and blanks in meaning. Hearing only half of a conversation somehow makes it much more difficult to tune out that conversation than one involving two people. I’ve experienced this myself, and it also seems to be corroborated by studies showing a significant drop in attention for drivers in situations where someone else in the car is speaking on a phone.
      And finally, though this is little more than an unscientific hunch, the content of phone conversations tends to be much more inane than that of in-person conversations. The glibness of distance, maybe?

      • June 24, 2013


        The solution, in a word, is earplugs.

        • June 24, 2013

          Rob S

          Same with pollutants and smoke, just wear a gas mask. If others drive dangerously, just stay off the roads.

          Why should the guilty have to stop what they are doing just to save the innocent some inconvenience?

    • June 25, 2013


      Nobody has to use a phone, unless to say ‘the train is delayed’. One may have to talk to one’s companion; I certainly agree that phones have had a bad effect on manners generally, in that people who used to speak quietly among themselves now shout the details of their sex lives the distance of the carriage.

      • July 14, 2013


        If only it was details of their sex lives, that would be far more interesting. In my experience it never is. It’s always about board meetings and accounts and things to make the rest of the carriage realise how important they are.

  2. June 20, 2013

    Tony H

    You do have a point. I’ve often felt that the more ways I have of communicating (remotely) the lonelier I feel. And I do draw the technophobic line when I’m out at the pub with friends and 6 out of 8 of them are staring at their smart phone under the table.

    However, despite the humour, you do seem to display a fair amount of grumpy old person syndrome – something I partially sympathise with having reached the grand old age of 50 myself

    • June 24, 2013


      It sounds like both of you need to have a few good books to carry around and read when you find time. You will not miss anything for a few hours or even days without a phone or internet. Backyard gossip was human’s way to passing information around for centuries and it still is usually just as accurate as phone conversations. Like Terry I am old but seldom grumpy but I prefer the presence of my books–all kinds–and magazines to the blather on internet or TV. If I didn’t have this I wouldn’t be talking across the country or world which is a pleasure of mine but not any of my personal friends. But I could do with out it, also. They prefer backyard gossip only. As a 50 year, what did you do prior to 1995 when there were no home PC’s in most cases and Internet didn’t come for everyone until later than that?? Terry–you need to learn how to use “delete” so you can get rid of those that don’t like what you say. Very easy –really!!

  3. June 20, 2013


    It seems odd replying to a post that you know the author will never see; however, there are certainly a number of points that I think many would agree with – phones on trains, kids with mobiles (who are they talking to that is so important?) and so on.

    Perhaps the email thing is a little far, although when purging my inbox it would certainly seem like a better choice. Language certainly adapts to the media we use and have available. There’s no doubt that certain elements have suffered as a consequence of shortened messages, but also the freedom to write and express views online is helping authors to get work out there that would otherwise go unseen. In short, technology isn’t as damaging as Terry probably fears.

  4. June 21, 2013

    Neil Paterson

    Good article. There’s one thing missing, though: his terrestrial address. I need it to send him a Facebook like and a Google+ +1.

  5. June 21, 2013


    I have taken objection to smartphones, or more specifically their overuse and misuse. ‘Online forms’ are my other personal dislike.The ‘technography’ of smartphones is yet to be written, but I suspect history will not look fondly on the benefits of instant and incessant communication, especially for the brains of children. Personally I like to stay 10 years behind the technological wave. This means an update from Windows 2000 would be necessary and my (tiny, not resembling a chopping board like those Galaxies) mobile now has a colour screen. It cannot be used for navigation. Blogs are now OK.

    Good on Eagleton. His productivity does not seem to have suffered (neither has Jared Diamond’s, another well known technophobe). http://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/bonfire-of-the-smartphones-cathy-davidson-vs-baroness-greenfield/

  6. June 21, 2013

    Jane Kelly

    Lucky you’re not disabled. If you were you would appreciate the use of a mobile phone to call a cab instead of trying to find a telephone box (remember them?) which when you do is out of order.

    • June 21, 2013


      Members of my family are Deaf, so I know how useful messaging is.

  7. June 21, 2013


    If Mr. Eagleton and his banana had been on the internet ever, he might have read the most recent xkcd comic, which has a certain relevance.


    I get that the majority of the the article is intended to be humourous, but it has clearly deliberate out-of-date aspects that remind me of the Onion’s recent take on the new film The Internship, which joked the film would have been absolutely in 2005.

    But then it also seems to be also like The Internship in being actually out of date. It’s very weird.

    But then, if Terry Eagleton is serious about not reading anything on the internet, he will be a little out-of-date, won’t he? He won’t have seen the wealth of material that has been written since the internet was born– including all the articles similar to this one. Perhaps he does get enough through print-outs and newspapers, but there’s something a little bit 2005-esque about this article that suggests that maybe by only reading manuscripts (and avoiding those slapdash, in accurate printed texts) he is missing out on something.

    I think he’s right. While you might not be able to get by in many situations without the internet (certainly it would be all but impossible to go to university), it is possible to live a specific kind of life perfectly fine without it. But like Mr. Eagleton relying on his son to send the occaisional crucial email or text message, after a while I think you’re going to be relying on herd technology (like herd immunity).

  8. June 22, 2013

    Rob S

    Emails are very good when the recipient is someone like my sister, who will not stop talking when on the ‘phone.

    She amuses me sometimes. She often excuses her lateness with “Ohhh! So and so ‘phoned and went on and on and on and…”

  9. June 23, 2013


    So, I guess by sending a print of this article to Prospect where some dude had to type it into the editorial system Mr Eagleton saved a lot of that poor fellow’s time who had to do the job. Also, by handing this print over to his secretary who had to post it he saved a lot of her time, too. Or maybe, Eagleton just wrote this article on his computer and his secretary just mailed it for him? Then, really, Eagleton is not not-using e-mail. He just hands the job over.

    I’m sorry, but while I am always for critical awareness when it comes to technology, there is always also the next guy who has to suffer for one’s own petty boycott. It’s one thing to say, you don’t need a tablet or a smartphone. But it’s the other thing to opt-out of the very basics of nowadays communication. While it might seem to noble to one’s own narcissism, it’s a pain in the a** for every one else who has to handle that.

  10. June 23, 2013

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    When men invented fire some people vowed that they never be used fire or when wheel used for traveled some eccentrics protested that if we used it we losses our legs..When first train started to ran in England some old traditional priests opposed it wholeheartedly in fear horses will erased from the earth.What happened to all crazy people that is history. No one stop Internet or Email..

  11. June 28, 2013


    Terry Eagleton has at least no confusion to adapt oneself to modern technology or not …it is possible for such people they have the sophistication of wisdom …we are novices have to depend on such materials otherwise will be lost.it has personally helped me ..if I need to contact someone like prof.Eagleton e mail is cheap than any female…good luck Mr. Terry.

  12. July 16, 2013

    Oopali Operajita

    The best line for me: “Language is first of all a way of being with other people, and only secondarily a way of getting things done.”

  13. August 26, 2013


    I agree that sitting next to,opposite or just proxima to someone on a train while they are talking to their be-loved can be very annoying,it can also though be very usefull to listen in,as the last time I was back in the UK travelling between London and Windsor,I picked up a great recipe for a prawn curry.
    I now live on Tenerife and unfortunately there are no trains!

Leave a comment


Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton's "How To Read Literature" has just appeared from Yale University Press 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia