You've got mail, a cyber sackful of it

How to cope with a full inbox? Unless you're famous, there are few short cuts

Three hundred and forty-nine: that's the number of emails that were waiting patiently in my inbox upon my recent return from a fortnight's holiday. I greeted them jet-lagged, and feeling slightly unloved. Back when I was managing editor of a major web publication, a post that made it necessary for almost everyone on the 12-strong staff to copy me in to any email they happened to send, I received that number every day. While my partner snoozed off the time difference, it took me about an hour to process them all.

Everyone has his or her own way of dealing with email. Unbelievably, it is still common among the powerful in the offline world to treat each important email like a letter, receiving a lovingly printed copy on their desk from a secretary, and dictating the response at leisure. It's an open secret that many successful columnists simply never open the inbox of the email address diligently printed beneath each of their articles in the national press. But in the online world, those who have garnered respect, and significant fan bases, have to treat their emails a little differently.

The internet is about unfettered communication. Thus, those who champion technology must also keep the communication channels open. How do they deal with the truckloads of email every day (Bill Gates reportedly gets four million)?

There are different strategies. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the http (hypertext transfer protocol), has a pre-emptive page on his W3C website entitled "Before you mail me". Tellingly, it begins: "If you need someone to find something for you about some arbitrary subject (travel agents, or parakeets or whatever), don't ask me."

One of the co-authors of the web's most popular blog, BoingBoing, appears to have set up a system that feeds your email through a semantic parsing program. Depending on the content of your missive, you are likely to receive an automated response along lines not dissimilar from the universally despised Microsoft Office paper clip: "It looks like you're trying to suggest a blog post . . ."

Another famous geek sends out an automated response which begins: "I am not on vacation, but I am at the end of a long time delay. I am located somewhere on earth, but as far as responding to email is concerned, I appear to be well outside the solar system." It then launches into six paragraphs explaining the batch system employed to deal with each email personally, and the associated delay time in responding.

What can we learn from these strategies? Unfortunately, nothing. Unless you yourself happen to be an immortal of the internet, any of these methods is going to make you look rather presumptuous and silly. Woe betide the rising techie who employs automated response systems too early on in a prolific emailing career. And, with my traffic at 349 every two weeks, I think I can cope for now.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis