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Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User

Feeling overwhelmed online? Maybe it’s because you’re working dozens of jobs
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In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously argued that by the time a century had passed, developed societies would be able to replace work with leisure thanks to widespread wealth and surplus. “We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day,” he wrote, “only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines.” Eighty years hence, it’s hard to find a moment in the day not filled with a duty or task or routine. If anything, it would seem that work has overtaken leisure almost entirely. We work increasingly hard for increasingly little, only to come home to catch up on the work we can’t manage to work on at work. 

Take email. A friend recently posed a question on Facebook: “Remember when email was fun?” It’s hard to think back that far. On Prodigy, maybe, or with UNIX mail or elm or pine via telnet. Email was silly then, a trifle. A leisure activity out of Keynes’s macroeconomics tomorrowland. It was full of excess, a thing done because it could be rather than because it had to be. The worst part of email was forwarded jokes, and even those seem charming in retrospect. Even junk mail is endearing when it’s novel.

Now, email is a pot constantly boiling over. Like King Sisyphus pushing his boulder, we read, respond, delete, delete, delete, only to find that even more messages have arrived whilst we were pruning. A whole time management industry has erupted around email, urging us to check only once or twice a day, to avoid checking email first thing in the morning, and so forth. Even if such techniques work, the idea that managing the communication for a job now requires its own self-help literature reeks of a foul new anguish.

If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning. And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations, invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights, mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be undone while you shower and breakfast.

Email and online services have provided a way for employees to outsource work to one another. Whether you’re planning a meeting with an online poll, requesting an expense report submission to an ERP system, asking that a colleague contribute to a shared Google Doc, or just forwarding on a notice that “might be of interest,” jobs that previously would have been handled by specialized roles have now been distributed to everyone in an organization.

No matter what job you have, you probably have countless other jobs as well. Marketing and public communications were once centralized, now every division needs a social media presence, and maybe even a website to develop and manage. Thanks to Oracle and SAP, everyone is a part-time accountant and procurement specialist. Thanks to Oracle and Google Analytics, everyone is a part-time analyst.

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And email has become the circulatory system along which internal outsourcing flows. Sending an email is easy and cheap, and emails create obligation on the part of a recipient without any prior agreement. In some cases, that obligation is bureaucratic, meant to drive productivity and reduce costs. “Self-service” software automation systems like these are nothing new—SAP’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has been around since the 1970s. But since the 2000s, such systems can notify and enforce compliance via email requests and  nags. In other cases, email acts as a giant human shield, a kind of white collar Strategic Defense Initiative. The worker who emails enjoys both assignment and excuse all at once. “Didn’t you get my email?”

The despair of email has long left the workplace. Not just by infecting our evenings and weekends via Outlook web access and BlackBerry and iPhone, although it has certainly done that. Now we also run the email gauntlet with everyone. The ballet school’s schedule updates (always received too late, but, “didn’t you get the email?”); the Scout troop announcements; the daily deals website notices; the PR distribution list you somehow got on after attending that conference; the insurance notification, informing you that your new coverage cards are available for self-service printing (you went paperless, yes?); and the email password reset notice that finally trickles in 12 hours later, since you forgot your insurance website password since a year ago. And so on.

It’s easy to see email as unwelcome obligations, but too rarely do we take that obligation to its logical if obvious conclusion: those obligations are increasingly akin to another job—or better, many other jobs. For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. It goes without saying that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time. We are doing all those things others aren’t doing instead of all the things we are competent at doing. And if we fail to do them, whether through active resistance or simple overwhelm, we alone suffer for it:  the schedules don’t get made, the paperwork doesn’t get mailed, the proposals don’t get printed, and on and on.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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