Polite Reply to Collective Mail


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Have you never hesitated before replying to a collective email? Should you reply to all recipients, only to the sender, or to a few choice people? Seemingly futile, this question is quite topical, as it deals with our day-to-day experience in the digital society and is a reality for many of us. In fact, it hides an essential ethical issue.

Supposing we limit the reply to just the sender, we risk appearing secretive or as if we were hiding something. In a century when transparency is seen as an essential ethical and political value, such a contrary attitude to the contemporary moral order of revealing everything in public, would be widely condemned. What could be worse than opacity?

However, if we send our response to the whole list of recipients, we may fear inconveniencing them: do they all need to receive some trivial info? Should we not apply the ethical principle of reciprocity? Also known as the “golden rule”, it states that one should not do to others as you would not wish done to you, and so not multiply demands unless they are essential. So, suppose I am on a distribution list of one hundred people, if they all sent their replies to all, I would receive one hundred messages, not counting the additional exchanges that may arise. And suppose I read everything, this would take me a long time for no much gain, not forgetting that it would also clog up my mailbox.

But the third solution, which consists of deciding who to reply to, could be perceived as a little arrogant, right? I decide, myself, based on arbitrary criteria without referring to anyone, who will benefit from my reply.
This issue did not arise with paper mail. Even if an identical letter was sent to several recipients, it was a correspondence from one person to another, and the reply, if any, would only be sent to one individual at a time. To send multiple replies, the original letter had to be copied, and the reply too: it was far too fastidious to implement on a wide scale and therefore prohibitive. Today, a tension exists between the collective will for complete transparency, which most of us deem legitimate, and our mental limitations, which make it reasonably impossible for us, even with the best will in the world, to read hundreds of messages per day with full attention.

The multitudinous trivial demands we receive lead to cognitive saturation which disables our ability to react. We live in an information society where the rare resource is no longer information, but our ability to concentrate and discriminate, which is constantly subjected to incessant flows of information. How then can we stay calm and wise in all this?

In this context, the moral principle which applies uses theoretical elements that underlie information theory, as that is what rules our world. I am thinking in particular of the precursory work of Ludwig Boltzmann and Claude Shannon, who established a link between thermodynamics and information using the concept of entropy, which measures the degree of disorganisation in a system. Later, Norbert Wiener in his book Cybernetics and Society, imagined the links between entropy, incarnation of the devil and according to him, ethics. He postulates that underlying the ethics of information is entropy, which should be reduced to relieve our ability to understand reality and help us act pertinently.

To return to the initial issue, a rule of minimum civility should lead us to limit our replies, as far as possible, to reduce the overall entropy and only reply to those people who are likely to benefit. In brief, adopting the attitude I qualified as arrogant, also means taking responsibility...






Jean-Gabriel Ganascia

Artificial intelligence researcher

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia  is  a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).

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November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018

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