Community, technology, & work

I think this Amanda Marcotte piece is pretty interesting.  She touches on the idea of work and community and how the modern workplace has, until very recently, served to cut us off entirely from our loved ones during the day.  This, she asserts, was not always the case.  People used to come into more contact with their loved ones during the day in the past and this served to create a more organic, more humane work place.  She riffs off a TED talk by Stefana Broadbent (below) which talks about how modern communication technology has actually allowed people to regain some of this ability to communicate with loved ones during the work day.

What Broadbent recorded was that the explosion in communications technologies are instead restoring a little bit of what was simply part of life 150 years ago—constant contact with your intimates during your work day.  If you’re over 30, you’ve probably marveled at how much the work day has changed because of this, and as Broadbent notes, it’s extremely different from the era when even personal phone calls were not part of life at work.  (And still aren’t in many blue collar jobs.) It used to be that once you were in the office, the outside world simply didn’t exist.  Huge news events could happen and you wouldn’t find out, and you were mostly ignorant about what your friends and relatives were up to during the day.  Now, between text messaging, cell phones, IM, and social networking, we spend huge portions of our days keeping lines of communication with our intimates open.

But of course, since the isolation was the product of culture, we can’t expect culture not to strike back.  Broadbent notes how people who work in many low status occupations, like bus drivers and factor workers, are facing increasingly punitive monitoring to make sure they don’t check in with family and friends during the day.  Broadbent treats this like a human rights violation, and I’m inclined to agree. If people are getting their work done, monitoring them to make sure they don’t use their downtime to talk to people they love is only going on in order to debase them and suggest that their personal lives don’t count.  I’ll go a step further and argue that the monitoring is valuing debasement and control of working class people over actual economic concerns like profit and saving money.  It uses resources to monitor workers, after all.  But more than that, I’m skeptical of the idea that unhappy people are better workers.  People who can’t communicate with loved ones often spend a lot of their mental energies worrying about those loved ones, in my experience.  Communication that you can control doesn’t offer nearly the distraction that your colleagues can offer by barging in and demanding your attention whenever they want, too.

This makes sense to me.  Then again, the average high school student in America spends five and a half hours a day in front of a screen, and there is little doubt in my mind that this sort of always-online-or-watching-tv culture is bad for society in the long run.  Nor is our increased sedentary lifestyle exactly beneficial to our societal health or temperament. 

That being said, I think the benefits of technology should not be overlooked either, and if new avenues of communication are allowing friends and loved ones to keep in touch more, that’s undeniably a very good thing.

I’ve always thought a more likely reason for our atomization was our car culture.  The ability for families to spread out over such long distances, and the need to drive to get anywhere at all have led to people living further and further apart from one another.  My mom had seven siblings other than herself, and each one lives in a different city now, with their own families.  Only one stayed in her home town.  This was unheard of a generation previously.  Now it is the status quo.  My family has chosen a different path, and has decided to stay in our home town where our families live so that our children will have deeper and stronger ties to their community than we did growing up. 

In any case, I think it is the physical distance we have placed between ourselves and our neighbors, families, and friends that has contributed most to our atomization, and which has led directly to the more psychological and spiritual distances we see forming – as our children are raised either in single-parent homes or without any real connections to their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and communities in general.  In some sense, then, the communication technologies we have developed allow us to compensate for this distance.  Rather than blaming social networking or other communications technology for our increased atomization, perhaps we should view them as a subconscious attempt to remedy something we, as a culture, barely understand about ourselves – as an attempt to bridge the distances between one another.

Watch the TED talk after the leap.

P.S. In the comments, Sam writes:

Maybe because it’s a bad idea to be texting while you are driving a bus or running a blast furnace? Such a bad idea that if you screw up while making kissy-face with pooh-bear, someone is going to die? Wait, no. That can’t be it. It has to be because everyone’s human rights are being violated. She mentions down time. Is there wide-spread evidence that people are not allowed to text or use a cell phone while they are on lunch break? I do know that I have been on many, many city buses being driven by people who are engrossed in a Blackberry or cell phone. And I have worked blue-collar jobs where cell phones have been banned from certain individuals because they simply would not, under any circumstances, stop taking calls while working. I worked with one guy who openly made vast vicoden deals while swinging a sledge hammer. Human rights violations. Sheesh.

Totally agree – nor did I mean to really focus on this part of Marcotte’s post.  Mainly I was attempting to focus on the idea of communication technology as a means to counter atomization vs. communication technology as a cause of atomization.  I don’t think there’s a terribly clear dividing line, and certainly both can be true, but it’s an interesting topic.  More interesting than whether personal call restrictions are human rights violations.  This is also why I find that sort of language so counter-productive.  Posing the theory that separating work and family life has bad social outcomes is interesting to me, but suggesting that it constitutes some nefarious rights violations just sounds silly.

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12 thoughts on “Community, technology, & work

  1. “bus drivers and factor workers, are facing increasingly punitive monitoring to make sure they don’t check in with family and friends during the day.”

    Maybe because it’s a bad idea to be texting while you are driving a bus or running a blast furnace? Such a bad idea that if you screw up while making kissy-face with pooh-bear, someone is going to die? Wait, no. That can’t be it. It has to be because everyone’s human rights are being violated.

    She mentions down time. Is there wide-spread evidence that people are not allowed to text or use a cell phone while they are on lunch break? I do know that I have been on many, many city buses being driven by people who are engrossed in a Blackberry or cell phone. And I have worked blue-collar jobs where cell phones have been banned from certain individuals because they simply would not, under any circumstances, stop taking calls while working. I worked with one guy who openly made vast vicoden deals while swinging a sledge hammer.

    Human rights violations. Sheesh.

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    • My workplace now prohibits hourly-wage employees from even possessing a cellphone while on the premises. There are no safety issues or widespread phone abuse that would justify a blanket ban. And, tellingly, the rule does not extent to salaried employees.

      While I wouldn’t use the words “Human Rights Abuse” (and nor does Broadbent in her video), I think it demonstrates a profound lack of respect by my employer for its employees.

      And given that my cellphone primarily functioned as a glorified pocket watch, I’d say my time management, and thus my overall work performance, has actually become worse.

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  2. The flip side of this is that technology is also going to eventually make it so that people spend the bulk of their time with their families and telecommute to work. I’m already seeing this with some of my bosses and friends. They get to work from home, take breaks for catch with the kids, or lunch with their wives, etc. They can also take a quick trip for a day or two during the week with their kids and just steal away a couple of hours during the day to check email and put out fires before going back to the hotel pool.

    Unfortunately I also agree with Sam that some jobs just don’t mesh with constant communication. We have forklift drivers in parts of our operation that get caught texting. They could kill someone, so discipline is harsh and fast.

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    • Mike, I think you’ve hit on an interesting point about the different ways in which different professions benefit from these technologies. People, like me, who spend most of the day answering email and editing documents, can do that from almost anywhere. Others, like professional athletes, will still have to show up on the playing field.

      As much as it pains me to know that Peyton Manning won’t be able to rock the crib during half-time, I’m more concerned about finding ways to ensure that blue-collar workers (you know, the people who actually build things) are able to be close to their families. This is why I think that techno-optimism will not be enough. In addition to the newest technology, we will also need old school building patterns that make it possible for many people to return home for lunch, and for those working at home to more easily venture out into the world of shops and offices.

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      • I think it’s going to be hard to get blue collar workers home for lunch unless you want to lengthen their lunch hour. For me that would be a 90 minute round-trip, not including time to actually eat. Telecommuting via computer terminals would be a more logistically possible option. You could email the wife, or IM for a few minutes, maybe teleconference with your newborn while your spouse is on maternity leave, etc.

        My position in my company is one-step away from being able to work from home. This winter with several big snowstorms we were able to make a stronger case for allow most/all office workers to work from home. Losing a day of productivity (plus vacation time) because you’re stuck at home in a big snow really sucks when you know the only thing your office provides is a networked PC and a comfy chair.

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  3. Excellent post, Erik. Finding ways to collapse much of the distance between home and office is near the center of my own cultural project/concerns. A lot of people may think this an odd preoccupation on a not-so-important subject. Whatever we think of the value of discussing this issue in terms of “rights” (I’ve already expressed my qualms with doing so), it’s worth remembering that this is exactly how that divide has been discussed by decades of feminist literature. To America’s women, the ability to be both in the workplace and near the home — to be able to bear and raise children and participate in the country’s economic life — is nothing less than a right.

    For much of history and in much of the world, the home was the office. People worked in or very near their dwellings, often alongside the members of their own family. Women were not stranded in the suburbs while men went into the city. Family and economic life overlapped. I, too, think it’s worth watching technological developments and figuring out ways to harness it to make sure that work doesn’t take people too far from their families.

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  4. “I’m more concerned about finding ways to ensure that blue-collar workers (you know, the people who actually build things) are able to be close to their families.”

    Interesting idea. But in my expereince, the blue-collar men I have worked woth view inaccessibility to family as a feature, not a bug, of factory life.

    My dad was an automotive machinist. He ran the shop, so he could talk on the phone whenever he wanted, to whomever he wanted. But we had VERY strict rules. We were never allowed to call him unless it was an emergency. One involving house fires or hospitalization. When we did call, it was clear that he was irked. Work was work. He did not want us calling there unless we had to.

    Similarly, I knew guys who always shut off their cell phones at work, and lied to their families about not having any coverage at the plant. If there was ever an emergency, they knew someone could call the front desk. You don’t want someone calling you with grocery lists if you are running a press line. You just don’t.

    As someone who often works from home now, I can tell you that access to family has its ups and downs. But mostly it’s downs, and if I had a few extra hundred dollars a month laying around, I would rent office space.

    Family is awesome. Really, it is. But there is a reason people leave the house to work.

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    • True enough, Sam. For almost everyone it will be good, maybe even necessary, to have some separation between the sphere of home and work. But while they should be separated in some way, it’s also good for them to be close by. Ultimately, no one size will fit all, and that’s fine, but my interest is in articulating an ideal that we can hold in mind when constructing our messy reality.

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