Ever since the first e-mail message was sent in 1971, the World Wide Web has promised to revolutionise the way we do business. The technology has certainly grown rapidly. Just 20 short years ago, a web address was where Spiderman lived, and spam was a canned meat product immortalised in a wacky Monty Python song. Hardly anybody had heard of the now-ubiquitous three Ws (or dub-dub-dub as it is now often abbreviated to), and asking somebody for their e-mail address would probably have been greeted with a blank stare.
Over the intervening two decades, however, the internet has transformed the way we work. E-mail has grown to become the primary business communication tool, and the World Wide Web offers a powerful source of information and advice. But has the internet reality lived up to its hype?
The beauty of e-mail - its speed and immediacy - is also its pitfall. Although it makes communication almost instantaneous, there is a real danger of the recipient being flooded with too many frivolous messages and too much junk mail, wasting valuable work time and creating frustration. Half of all e-mail sent around the world (a staggering 50 billion messages a day) is so-called 'spam', or junk mail. Dealing with a flood of legitimate messages is time-consuming enough, without this extra burden.
This time-wasting trend is confirmed by a study commissioned by headset supplier GN Netcom. It claims that two-thirds of UK workers spend more than an hour every day sorting through and sending e-mails, with 37 per cent devoting one to three hours to the task. So, arguably, e-mail makes us less productive, not more.
But its propensity to eat up valuable working time is not the only problem with e-mail. It can also be a minefield of unintended insults. As a remote form of communication, the danger of creating misunderstandings is ever-present.
The insults can also be deliberate - another study, this time from internet job site reed.co.uk - reveals that one in six workers in the UK has been bullied via e-mail. The company adds: "The higher up the office ladder people are, the more likely they are to be targeted by e-bullies. While just 15 per cent of secretaries claim to be the victim of such attacks, 28 per cent of their bosses are being harassed via the inbox."
Now, I'm no Luddite - computers are central to my working life, and I love messing about with the technology. But wouldn't it be nice, even if only for a few precious hours, to return to those peaceful, laid-back days before the advent of electronic information overload?