Computers: Right Back Where We Started

By | February 11, 2008


A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

13 thoughts on “Computers: Right Back Where We Started

  1. Joe Goh

    It really is nice to think that the “dead time” that we have while commuting to work or waiting for others is well spent just thinking, but for many people out there (myself included), its really not the case. A lot of the time, people are “stoning” and staring into blank space, not thinking of anything, or trying hard to catch a nap. That’s what I did.

    If this dead time is used properly – reading RSS feeds, answering emails, etc, that might mean time that could spent in leisure later in the day. Perhaps you could meet your date earlier for dinner, or perhaps even leave work a few minutes early that day because of those few extra emails you’ve answered while commuting.

    Even games played while commuting can serve a good purpose IMHO. It keeps your mind active (MindAge comes to mind) and helps you to unwind. A whole load better than unconsciously listening in to the inane chatter to the people in the train with you.

    Typing this after a beer – so if this doesn’t make any sense at all, blame it on the brew. 🙂

  2. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Joe, it’s certainly true that it’s not easy to contemplate in public spaces, since they’ve become so intrusive and noisy. And it’s true that time can be saved getting stuff out of the way. But my worry is that the emphasis on killing dead time is leading to an assumption that all inactive time is dead time — to the point where people simply cannot leave their phones, ipods or other gadgets alone, as if actually occupying their mind with thought was a failure. No one ever had a good idea while they were tapping out an email on a BlackBerry, I’d wager.

  3. Dave Garr

    I agree with you Jeremy. Your post reminds me of an insight from Steven Spielberg:

    “Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”
    -Steven Spielberg
    Wired Magazine
    June 2002

  4. Hsien Lei

    The whole concept of “dead time” would be foreign in previous centuries when people had to do everything manually and when obesity was not a public health concern. So I’m thinking that filling dead time with Blackberries and other gadgets is one of the reasons why obesity is on the rise. If we filled dead time with physical activity such as cleaning house, running errands on foot, etc., we’d not only have some time to think but also get some exercise in!

  5. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Hsien Lei, good point! I love the morning ritual of washing up to the dulcet tones of the BBC World Service. I even get some ideas there, amid the detritus of last night’s roast…

  6. Normd

    A timely comment, Jeremy,since I was reviewing my RSS feeds *deliberately* , on my desktop computer, rather than my usual way – on my smartphone, waiting for something else (microwave lunch in office breakroom? queued up at Trader Joe’s?). The desire to keep “busy” didn’t start with tech gadgetry, but frankly everything I used to do when waiting in line or riding a subway train was much better. Reading a paperback, drawing, or the best, chatting with someone I cared about.

    I have a phone my company provides me, and I use it to read through email with more of a “is anything on fire?” perspective.

    being busy every waking moment != productivity gain.

  7. mattbg

    Honestly, I think there are a lot of people that don’t want dead time. It gives them an excuse to get out of things that they don’t want to do. It allows the excuse of “I’m too busy!” to be used to do things that they are obligated to do, or that by good conscience they would normally do.

    And this Blackberry stuff gives them a good reason to go along with it… “if everyone else is doing it, what choice do I have?”. For some reason, we let this slide. It should be challenged. There’s somewhat of a conspiracy involved to inflate the necessity of the Blackberry to avoid doing these other things that having dead time would allow — “don’t question me, and I won’t question you”. In a very civilized way, of course. It also makes you feel important… that maybe someone out there can’t survive unless you pacify their separation anxiety. And others probably look at you and think you’re important, too.

    At my last job, I was told to carry a Blackberry. I didn’t do it. I never even set the thing up. I was prodded about it a few times, but I just didn’t do it. Guess what? Nothing happened, and I was no less productive. And, to be honest, of that people I know that carry Blackberries, most of the people I see flicking around on the them all the time are the ones I generally consider to be the most incompetent. They’re the paranoid people that think something is always about to creep up and get them.

    In short, I think most people that use Blackberries are fully aware that it doesn’t increase productivity. It’s a socially-acceptable excuse to avoid having done, thought, or considered something unpalatable but far more important.

  8. mattbg

    Hsien, good point… there are a large chunk of people in this society that are mentally exhausted but not physically exhausted. It’s a strange feeling, and probably explains why so many people spend hours watching TV when they should be getting the right amount of sleep.

    Worse, their mental exhaustion isn’t from doing all that much thinking. It’s just from context-switching so often — never engaging — and from all of the mental friction that occurs in some styles of day-to-day life. That’s probably another reason why we are so unproductive, and dead-time is one of the cures.

  9. Tim

    I think there’s no arguing that we’ve gotten much busier, and whether productivity is a part of that is still a big open question to me. I’d say that communicating with people is something I would need to do with or without the Internet, so email and IM aren’t so much a distraction as much as a convenience. With the advent of the internet, we really need to reconsider what we consider “productive” – at least to me, there’s a distinct difference in terms of productivity between playing a game and blogging/reading blogs.

  10. Tracy Esau

    I have a phone my company provides me, and I use it to read through email with more of a “is anything on fire?” perspective.

  11. cheap computers

    It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems.I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing.


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