Now that even geeks don’t use email, holdouts like Janet Napolitano can declare victory

July 12, 2013
July 12, 2013

US secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced today that she’s stepping down to become president of the University of California. The former governor of Arizona will be the first woman to run the large UC system.

But what we really want to know is how Napolitano, who CNN reported last year doesn’t use email “at all,” manages to get anything done without it.

It’s not clear whether Napolitano just minimized her use of e-mail for professional and personal purposes while working for Homeland Security, or if she actually lived without it. And it is perhaps surprising that someone whose brief includes overseeing US cybersecurity efforts could do that job without access to email.

But Napolitano is not the only person in power who’s eschewed basic online communication. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov reportedly avoids computers because “we have too much information and it’s really impossible to filter it.” Forbes several years ago compiled a list of celebrities who were off email at the time. 

How do they all do it? When most of us are checking our email constantly on an increasing number of devices, can you really live without it entirely? Napolitano seems to have cheated, as her answer was frequent briefings by her staff (who we can probably assume were using email.)

But it’s actually getting increasingly easy to avoid email, with alternatives like Twitter for brief messages and instant messaging or Skype chats for longer ones. Long-term projects can be completed without messy back-and-forth communication with the use of shared documents online such as a Google Doc. And more personal chats can still take place on the phone or by text (or even in person.)

Some techies are now shunning email because of concerns about government surveillance of communications. And others see it as an inefficient use of time, citing studies to that effectIBM has a wave of employees joining the anti-email trend, increasingly relying on social media for chats both professional and personal. And in 2011 Atos, a European technology services company, announced plans to eliminate email in its ranks by 2014.

Are email’s days numbered? Maybe. But it’s only going to get harder to avoid all online communication, especially if you’ve got a company—or, you know, a country—to run.

Read this next: How to get better at email: What science tells us

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