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.

But the deluge doesn’t stop with email, and hyperemployment extends even to the unemployed, thanks to our tacit agreement to work for so many Silicon Valley technology companies. 

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Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers, Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your blog, on your YouTube channel. The Facebook page you manage for your neighborhood association or your animal rescue charity. New messages in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email. Always more email.

Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an “online brand” in the information economy). But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyperemployment?

When critics engage with the demands of online services via labor, they often cite exploitation as a simple explanation. It’s a sentiment that even has its own aphorism: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” The idea is that all the information you provide to Google and Facebook, all the content you create for Tumblr and Instagram enable the primary businesses of such companies, which amounts to aggregating and reselling your data or access to it. In addition to the revenues extracted from ad sales, tech companies like YouTube and Instagram also managed to leverage the speculative value of your data-and-attention into billion-dollar buyouts. Tech companies are using you, and they’re giving precious little back in return.

While often true, this phenomenon is not fundamentally new to online life. We get network television for free in exchange for the attention we devote to ads that interrupt our shows. We receive “discounts” on grocery store staples in exchange for allowing Kroger or Safeway to aggregate and sell our shopping data. Meanwhile, the companies we do pay directly as customers often treat us with disregard at best, abuse at worst (just think about your cable provider or your bank). Of course, we shouldn’t just accept online commercial exploitation just because exploitation in general has been around for ages. Rather, we should acknowledge that exploitation only partly explains today’s anxiety with online services.

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Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies. And even calling them “unpaid” is slightly unfair, since we do get something back from these services, even if they often take more than they give. Rather than just being exploited or duped, we’ve been hyperemployed. We do tiny bits of work for Google, for Tumblr, for Twitter, all day and every day. 

Today, everyone’s a hustler. But now we’re not even just hustling for ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other, unseen bosses. For accounts payable and for marketing; for the Girl Scouts and the Youth Choir; for Facebook and for Google; for our friends via their Kickstarters and their Etsy shops; for Twitter, which just converted years of tiny, aggregated work acts into $78 of fungible value per user.

Even if there is more than a modicum of exploitation at work in the hyperemployment economy, the despair and overwhelm of online life doesn’t derive from that exploitation—not directly anyway. Rather, it’s a type of exhaustion cut of the same sort that afflicts the underemployed as well, like the single mother working two part-time service jobs with no benefits, or the PhD working three contingent teaching gigs at three different regional colleges to scrape together a still insufficient income. The economic impact of hyperemployment is obviously different from that of underemployment, but some of the same emotional toll imbues both: a sense of inundation, of being trounced by demands whose completion yields only their continuance, and a feeling of resignation that any other scenario is likely or even possible. The only difference between the despair of hyperemployment and that of un- or under-employment is that the latter at least acknowledges itself as an substandard condition, while the former celebrates the hyperemployed’s purported freedom to “share” and “connect,” to do business more easily and effectively by doing jobs once left for others competence and compensation, from the convenience of your car or toilet.

Staring down the barrel of Keynes’s 2030 target for the arrival of universal leisure, economists have often considered why Keynes seems to have been so wrong. The inflation of relative needs is one explanation—the arms race for better and more stuff and status. The ever-increasing wealth gap, on the rise since the anti-Keynes, supply-side  1980s is another. But what if Keynes was right, too, in a way. Even if productivity has increased mostly to the benefit of the wealthy, hasn’t everyone gained enormous leisure, but by replacing recreation with work rather than work with recreation? This new work doesn’t even require employment; the destitute and unemployed hyperemployed are just as common as the affluent and retired hyperemployed. Perversely, it is only then, at the labor equivalent of the techno-anarchist’s  singularity, that the malaise of hyperemployment can cease. Then all time will become work time, and we will not have any memory of leisure to distract us. 

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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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