Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?

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Exclusively focusing on technological problems leads us to look for fixes in the wrong places.

Another day, another New York Times story about technology addiction. It's almost like they are trying to win a Pulitzer Prize or something by pandering to the preformed opinions of journalists like themselves about the evils of modern communication.

Anyway, this time, the Times' Matt Richtel talked with a bunch of people in Silicon Valley who recommended "step[ping] away from the device." The basic argument is this:

The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation -- the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates -- is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

Now, I've got no problem with trying to figure out how devices or social networks should fit into one's life, or even in recognizing that some of them have addictive feedback mechanisms as features, not bugs. But for crying out loud, some of these New York Times gadget addiction pieces need to recognize the role that The Great Speedup in the American workplace plays in keeping people tethered to their devices. Here's Clara Jeffery and Monica Bauerlein's gloss of the problem:

Sound familiar: Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you've been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?

Guess what: It's not you. These might seem like personal problems -- and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion -- but they're really economic problems. Just counting work that's on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn't solely accounted for by longer hours, of course--worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time (PDF), and paid maternity leave.

To elide that one of the reasons we spend so many hours in front of our screens is that we have to misses the key point about our relationship with modern technology. The upper middle class (i.e. the NYT reader) is WORKING MORE HOURS and having to stay more connected TO WORK than ever before. This is a problem with the way we approach labor, not our devices. Our devices enabled employers to make their employees work 24/7, but it is our strange American political and cultural systems that have allowed them to do so.

And worse, when Richtel blames the gadgets themselves, he channels the anxiety and anger that people feel about 24/7 work into a different and defanged fear over their gadgets. The only possible answer becomes, "Put your gadget down," not "Organize politically and in civil society to change our collective relationship to work."

Imagine if 19th-century factory workers blamed the clock for the length of their work days. The answer to the horrible working conditions of the late 19th century was not to smash the clocks or the steam engines! The solution was to organize and fight for your right to a 40-hour week and paid vacations.

Much of our compulsive connectedness (insofar as it exists) is a symptom of a greater problem, not the problem itself. McKinsey, as quoted in the Jeffery and Bauerlein piece above, recommends a strangely similar "put down the device" mantra to its clients, but the advice is atechnological.

"Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy," notes a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly, the research publication of the giant global consulting firm that has been corporate America's chief efficiency cheerleader. "These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard."

McKinsey's advice to beleaguered execs? Do one thing at a time; delegate; take more breaks.

See how easy that was?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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