“Your Brain on Computers”: The Missing Topic of Increased Pseudo-Productivity

The NY Times, on Monday, had an article about the effects of extensive computer use and interconnection on human cognition. The usual concerns are raised about attention deficits, lack of concentration, obsessive activity, and the like. The story focuses on a family that is, well, flying through The Intertubes, often to the detriment of what needs to get done:

When one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it.
Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it while sifting through old messages: a big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up.
“I stood up from my desk and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ ” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that, but I did.”
The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two computer screens alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was writing….
While he managed to salvage the $1.3 million deal after apologizing to his suitor, Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of the deluge of data.

Sounds like a busy guy, but this, in the middle of the article, is probably the most important point–and ignored by the author (italics mine):

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

The real potential damage stems not from the cognitive effects, since we have already invented plenty of idiot-making devices, such as television, but from the ever-expanding nature of the workplace. Sure, it’s nice to be able to do some work at home–although when I work at home, I turn off my email. But what all of this interconnectedness really means is that you can never escape work. It’s basically a way to increase productivity without wage compensation.
Many jobs don’t have this problem: a skilled machinist doesn’t bring his machine press home. His work stays at work. Likewise, if you have a job you love doing, this isn’t a problem (on the other hand, then it’s not really work either, but well compensated play). However, for many ‘knowledge workers’, not only is constant connectedness a source of economic exploitation (you’re typically working far longer than your play suggests), but it also means you never really get time off. Maybe I’m just antiquated or something, but I don’t think we were meant, either biologically or philosophically, to spend all our time generating gross domestic product.
Sometimes, you have to be out of the office for your own health.

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3 Responses to “Your Brain on Computers”: The Missing Topic of Increased Pseudo-Productivity

  1. Dunc says:

    Yup… There’s a mobile phone commercial on UK TV at the moment, which shows some high powered suit type being introduced at a corporate event as “our new CEO” – his phone rings, he answers it to find his daughter’s just been dumped, so he walks out to go and comfort her… To which my inevitable response is “Yeah, sure, people are using mobile phones to connect to their loved ones at the expense of work, and not to connect people to their work at the expense of their loved ones… Right. As if!”

  2. If you don’t need that kind of interconnectivity and can do your job just fine, odds are, we need that job. If you NEED that connectivity and LOVE it, we probably need that job. From mechanics who occasionally look up new schematics to scientists who need up to second data from the lab, these jobs are needed. If you don’t need that stream and your boss is constantly on your ass anyways, we don’t need your job. Bossy doesn’t want to lose his headcount, or the gov has your job subsidized. We don’t need you.

  3. Bruce says:

    This is late in internet time, but it just aired over the weekend. A BYU prof in Family Life claims telecommuters could clock 57 hours a week before family would interfere with work.
    Family interferes with work — from a BYU professor!

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