Ah, now, my point, found after a detailed archeological expedition: while most e-mail is not made by nor intended to be read by people, nor even readable by people, there is still a steadily encrusting layer of e-mail that every person receives, even before they have an e-mail account, that needs some response not involving whimpering. And the only people who have the time to respond to all of this are professional bloggers, who somehow support themselves on the income derived from comparing Presidential Candidates to outrageously impractical plans made by Cobra to rule the world in the 1980s cartoon of G.I.Joe. The rest of us need a system to immediately break down and be replaced by another system.
The key to this doomed system is to understand the purpose of e-mail. Once we know the purpose of a letter the proper response can be understood in short order. For example, e-mails at work are intended primarily to demonstrate that you are working on whatever you were supposed to be working on, and that you need other people to work on whatever it is they are supposed to work on. A secondary goal is to compile lists of take-out orders sufficiently complicated that they will never be successfully ordered nor quite fully paid for. A tertiary objective is to pass around tips on whatever silly Internet-based game is currently sweeping everyone in the department, such as finding ways to use moderately under-employed words like ``tertiary'' in sentences that produce giggles.
The first objective of work-based e-mails is easiest to satisfy: in response to any of them it suffices to assert good progress but that completion is running behind deadline and to suggest that it would be easier if not for the efforts of some other person. The second can be satisfied by making sure that there is always an extra tub of sweet and sour sauce left over once the lunch is delivered so that everyone has the unsettling feeling they have the wrong order -- except, of course, when ordering Chinese food in which case there should be one missing tub. For the third there's not really much to do except hope that we move on to a more sophisticated sort of humor soon.
On a mailing list again letters fall into one of a few categories: they serve to introduce some fact, real or imagined, which it is assumed the mailing list readership did not previously acknowledge with sufficient depth; they serve to contradict the fact, real or imagined, as something irrelevant or untrue; they serve to insist the fact, real or imagined, was already more than amply covered in previous discussions which could be found on the archive as soon as someone finds the archive; or they announce personal moments such as one's marriage, graduation, quitting the list forever and this time we mean it, or birth. The first few can be handled in standardized forms, and the last can be settled by a congratulatory note, unless the announcement is something like a death in the family, in which case the congratulations should be suffixed by a frowning ``smiley'' so that the congratulations is understood to be in jest.
Personal e-mails are much like the personal announcements made on mailing lists, but they can serve other roles. For example, they may indicate that ``I am interested in you'', or ``I am not interested in you, but it feels rude to admit that and stop writing'', or ``Here is an un-amusing joke forwarded many times over already so why spoil something with that momentum?'', or sometimes ``A cat did something''. But with the purpose of the letters to you made clear, it's obvious the only response actually needed is that sentence of purpose.
So in every case of received e-mail a sensible response can be composed in just a sentence or two, easily composed and sent out. This system for handling e-mail will let the user get only exponentially far behind in keeping meaningful touch with people until this scheme, too, collapses and is replaced by staring helplessly at the ``in'' box.
Trivia: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's ship Great Eastern had ten wrought-iron steam boilers: six for the ship's screw propeller and four for the paddle wheels. Source: Engineering In History, Richard Shelton Kirby, Sidney Withington, Arthur Burr Darling, Frederick Gridley Kilgour.
Currently Reading: Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman.