We need Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for Gmail

Have you looked at your email inbox lately? Here’s a suggestion: don’t. I can tell you what it looks like without even seeing it. For starters, there’s a big red badge on your email app icon with a five-digit number that you ignore a hundred times a day. It’s stuffed full of promotional emails, spam, newsletters you don’t read, and a sprinkling of bills and credit card notices. Maybe there are a couple of legitimate messages from acquaintances or your parenting group buried somewhere, but the prospect of locating and responding to them is too daunting, so you ignore them forever.

Your email inbox, like mine, is a wasteland. If there’s anything useful in there, it’s under a pile of digital garbage so thick most of us would rather get a root canal than face it. So here’s what I’m proposing: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but for Gmail. Basically, the memory-erasing technology that’s at the center of the movie, but instead of selectively deleting memories of a painful breakup, it would deal with and ultimately annihilate everything clogging up your email. It would offer a chance to start over and breathe easy without 10,000 unread email messages staring you in the face every day.

Your email inbox, like mine, is a wasteland

Here’s how this feature would work. It would start with the obvious stuff, like automatically unsubscribing you from the 6,000 mailing lists you signed up for to get 10 percent off of your first purchase. Then it would look for messages that you opened repeatedly but never replied to — legitimate emails from old friends or your cat’s cardiologist that you probably should respond to but never will. Those get an automatic response before they’re deleted, something like the doctor’s office sends out in Spotless Mind to let the recipient know that you’re having your email wiped and to please not discuss the matter with you in the future. “I’m happy for you or sorry that happened,” etc., etc.

Anything left that’s noteworthy, like a bill to pay or a coupon code for your neighborhood pizza place, gets put into a Google Doc or turned into a calendar appointment. With all of that done — boom — inbox zero, like nothing ever happened.

Sure, you could just deploy the nuclear option and delete everything yourself, but personally, I am not capable of this. I always come face-to-face with a newsletter I subscribed to and decide that maybe I should try to put in more of an effort to read it every once in a while. There was that really funny one a few months ago – that was good! I should read newsletters more often.

An algorithm or a human, it doesn’t really matter which — just an entity without any emotional baggage able to smash that unsubscribe button

And what if I happen to spot a good sale on that MoMA Design Store-esque website I bought something from once three years ago? Surely I don’t want to miss out on that. Email is a lot like the aspirational shirts in my closet that either don’t fit anymore or are too fancy for my soft-pants-remote-working-mom lifestyle. Getting rid of them would be an admission of who I am not, and I hate facing those kinds of realities.

That’s why the best solution here is a third party. An algorithm or a human, it doesn’t really matter which — just an entity without any emotional baggage able to smash that unsubscribe button indiscriminately. And once that’s done, I guess I could use some help with my closet, too.

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