In this comic, Cueball is using an email client program on a laptop, which is a popular tool for communicating by email with others.
In recent years, many email clients have started implementing helpful warnings and reminders to catch common human mistakes and ease the process of communication. One such feature, demonstrated in this comic, is that many clients will now warn you if you've mentioned an attachment in your email but haven't actually attached anything, a common error people make when emailing.
This has gotten to the point where email clients are increasingly stepping in to help with social obligations too; for example, reminding you if you've left an email unanswered for too long, or that someone is celebrating a birthday today and should be congratulated. With the increasing availability of social data and advances in machine learning, these features have the potential to become very sophisticated, to the point that they can effortlessly make social inferences and connections that might have slipped a human user's mind.
Such features are meant to be helpful aids, but have led people to be worried about privacy issues, or about how "smart" technology is becoming. However, in this comic, Cueball (likely representing Randall himself) has come to the uncomfortable realization that technology is now easily surpassing his own ability to maintain social relationships with other people, by being more aware of his friends' social lives than he is. He is disturbed by how unwittingly unconscientious he has become.
The title text suggests that the problem of keeping up a baseline level of interest in other people's lives eventually solves itself; implying, somewhat darkly, that if you don't put in even the bare minimum effort to keep up, you'll end up with fewer friends as some get annoyed by your lack of interest in their lives.
- [Cueball at his desk using a laptop.]
- Laptop: You got this email six days ago. Do you want to follow up?
- Cueball: Oh, right, I should do that.
- [Cueball types on laptop.] *type type*
- Laptop: Did you forget the attachment?
- Cueball: Oops, yes.
- Laptop: Today is the recipient's birthday. Did you want to mention that?
- Cueball: Wait, it is?
- [Caption below the panel:]
- These reminders make me uncomfortable, not because computers are getting too smart, but because it reminds me how often I fall short of even baseline levels of conscientiousness.
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I added an explanation in which I extended Cueball's reaction from the reminders to Randall himself - I believe this is commonly done for many comics, but please feel free to modify it. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 17:25, 2 January 2019 (UTC)
Relevant SMBC: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/gmail 188.8.131.52 13:33, 3 January 2019 (UTC)
I liked the rewrite of my original explanation but made a few additional changes. I re-added the intro about Cueball using an email client program, and I slightly modified the title text explanation - I don't think it's suggesting you'll end up friendless and alone, just with a level of friends that you can keep up with or who are willing to accept your lack of attention to the details of their lives. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 14:08, 3 January 2019 (UTC)
- Yeah, sorry, I kind of stomped all over your original write-up :) I felt it read a bit too much like the transcript and needed more explanation than description. I agree with your updates. Hawthorn (talk) 16:54, 3 January 2019 (UTC)
- No problem - it was just a starting point. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 19:31, 3 January 2019 (UTC)
Is there a real email client capable of all three of these types of reminders? 184.108.40.206 23:02, 3 January 2019 (UTC)
- The default program of the xkcd phone can do this 220.127.116.11 21:09, 7 January 2019 (UTC)
- Probably not the first one, but if not, there probably will be now! ;-) Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 04:51, 4 January 2019 (UTC)
- Gmail definitely can remind you to answer an email (I don't know what exactly triggers this, I have a lot of unanswered emails I do not get reminders about, but I definitely got such reminders in a few cases), and it also warns you about missing attachments. I don't know about birthday reminders, as I didn't tell Google about the birthdays of my contacts. --18.104.22.168 09:57, 4 January 2019 (UTC)
Hah! Funnily at first I mistakenly read “conscientiousness” as “consciousness”; then on second thoughts... :o