On shadow work and bandwidth

The promise of going paperless is one I’ve been chasing one the last three years, digitising much of my world and opting out of being sent bills and correspondence in hard copy for environmental reasons as well as an attempt to simplify my life. I’ve scanned, recycled. Yet paperless is not synonymous with simple, uncluttered and minimal as I once thought it was. The same things need doing; you just don’t have a physical reminder sitting on the table – a bill to be paid, for example, or a holiday brochure to browse through. Companies and, increasingly, Government, are a key enabler of this move, ensuring their services and interactions are ‘digital by default’. 

I also like exploring the appropriate tech to be able to support all this and I therefore sometimes say we are increasingly asked to be the knowledge-worker in our own lives. Whilst this has perhaps always been the case, I mean it in the sense that the job description is expanding. This is what Craig Lambert calls ‘shadow work’ – all of the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organisations. In this he expands on Ivan Illic’s notion of shadow work as the unpaid labour within a wage-based economy. It has, he notes, “slipped into our routines stealthily; most of us do not realize how much of it we are already doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and build our own unassembled furniture”. 

Sure, it’s not all bad. There is research to evidence we value our furniture more if we assemble it ourselves. We enjoy more choice and flexibility over the things we do and when we do them. We don’t have to travel to the bank to move money around. And, to a certain extent, these tasks are synonymous with taking responsibility; they are a necessary part of being a human being functioning in modern society. It’s incumbent on us, and in our best interests, to complete our tax returns, pay our credit card bill and so on. But it’s now the default. 

It seems like whenever I get an email telling me to sumit a meter reading, I leave it, to come back to when I can give it the attention it needs. But I don’t often feel in that place. And the tasks pile up: must check-in on-line to my upcoming flight, revise my car hire booking, pay my credit card bill, chase that recent order that’s not arrived, look for the warranty on my vacuum that’s stopped charging, query why I’ve been charged for a subscription I thought I had cancelled, and so on. 

Just in the last week I’ve I’ve received four letters from my old utility provider for a flat I moved out of months ago; it took me more than half an hour to figure out how they relate to each other, fishing out the previous bills, finding the meter reading from six months ago and checking my bank account to see if the payments I thought I’d made were properly listed. As a result, I think the bills now show the right amount that I owe, but I can’t be totally sure as they are impossible to follow from one to the other. The very act of trying to figure all this out made it obvious to me why I hadn’t opened them before now. I knew it would be a painful exercise and I knew I didn’t have the energy to sort it out. I realised this was my own ‘immune response’ to information overload. I simply didn’t have the mental bandwidth so I placed the letters in the ‘can’t deal with this now’ pile.  

I’m not using bandwidth as a euphamism for ‘can’t be bothered right now’. Our brains are now functioning in a time of information overload yet their capacity to process information remains limited to around 126 bits per second; this is the equivalent of having a conversation with one person. From an estimated 2 million stimuli reaching the brain every second, about 140 are taken in and processed. This is why our brain’s neurons act as an attentional filter, beyond our conscious awareness, letting in only the most pertinent or relevant information. It’s a filter that has developed over 300 million years of evolution. And so we are not only assaulted with information during our working day but we are fatigues in the process. Finding the energy and the attention to focus suficiently long enough to handle an additional set of often complicated tasks to manage in our own world simply adds to the feeling of overwhelm. The result of which is that we can become ‘numb to the stack’ of tasks we know await us. 

And so my simple thesis is this. The stuff we need to attend to in our lives seems to be growing exponentially as the promises of tech and automation offload tasks from companies to us, yet at the same time our capacity to tend to them seems to be reducing. Clearly the why? is cost savings packaged up for unwitting consumers as a better service. But what does this mean for us as individuals and as a society?

I don’t claim to have the answers, just some thoughts. I worry about three implications in particular. What does this mean for those who are already engaged in a struggle to survive, living under conditions of high stress and scarcity and with limited access to online services? What does this mean for a society in which around 40% of us admit to feeling lonely yet we no longer interact with the person on the supermarket check-out, the travel agent or the the bank clerk? And if technological opportunity for cheaper transaction costs is driving this trend when the promise of technology was to make life easier for ourselves, can we really look to technology for solutions? 

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