TECHNOLOGY DOES NOT LEAVE YOU ALONE.
This is one of the unbending laws of invention and innovation. Technology never leaves you alone. Every new technology you adopt will change you to some degree or another. Sometimes those changes are physical (think about a guitar giving you callouses on your fingertips), but most of the time the changes are mental. Technology changes the way you think, the way you think about the world and the way you think about your place in it. The way you think about possibilities and limitations, imperatives and prohibitions are dictated by our technology. Every technology we adopt eventually brings us to think from that technology rather than thinking to the technology. In other words, technology bends us into an image of its choosing. We don’t like to think of technology this way. We’d rather think of technology as merely the tools we use to change the world into an image of our choosing, but this isn’t the reality. The automobile dictates the way you think about distance. The clock dictates the way you think about time. Google dictates the way you think about information.*
If technology doesn’t leave us alone, I can’t help but wonder how we are being changed by our experience with technology in 2020. Little of the technology we have used to stay connected and get our work done in 2020 is new, but our use of it has been put into hyperdrive. Ten months is more than enough time to cement new habits of thinking and doing, so how have we been changed by our technology this year? This is a question I just can’t shake. I don’t suppose we’ll fully understand the answer to the question any time soon, but it’s not too early to start asking it.
There are at least five areas where technology is undoubtedly changing us, maybe permanently: consumption, recreation, education, worship, and work. Each one of those areas deserves reflection, but in this post, I want to think about the nature of work – particularly office work.
If you read very much on the history of technology, you will eventually run into the name Frederick Taylor. Taylor was a mechanical engineer who wrote a book in 1911 that revolutionized the manufacturing industry. In The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor outlined a strategy for manufacturing designed to maximize efficiency. One of the key ideas of Taylorism (as it came to be known) is that each worker was trained to do one small task in that process over and over again. This minimized the need for comprehensive training and knowledge. Essentially, Taylorism turned the entire factory into one large machine and workers were turned into parts within that machine. Manufacturing became cheaper and much more efficient. The trade-off, of course, is that workers became less human and more like the machines they were operating. We shouldn’t romanticize manufacturing before Taylorism. Manufacturing was difficult, dirty, and dangerous work, but Taylorism turned it into drudgery, and craftsmanship was replaced by mass consumer culture.
Taylorism shows us what happens when mindsets first accommodate and are then shaped by available new technology.** Taylorism shows us that technology doesn’t just revolutionize industries; it alters the way we think about work. So my question is how has the confluence of a pandemic and technology reshaped office life? 2020 was the year where office spaces were emptied and replaced with remote working through networked digital devices. Many companies, large and small, have discovered just how little they actually need to be in physical spaces in order to accomplish their work. It’s naïve to think that work will ever completely go back to what it was before 2020. Technology has created a new opportunity that has become an imperative. You can’t afford to fully staff an office when your competitor has transferred office space to their employees living rooms. Many of these changes will become permanent. I can’t help but wonder how this new reality will change the way we come to think about our work. Specifically, I can’t help but wonder if a new form of Taylorism has left the factory floor and entered into the office.
Once the pandemic is over, the decision to continue to work remotely will be primarily about efficiency. Workers who are doing their work from home get more work done and more cheaply. Never mind the savings when you don’t have to pay for physical spaces, getting rid of time killers like commutes, idle chit-chat, or long lunches or smoke breaks with colleagues can likely save a ton of money over the long run. But such working is also transformative. Just like Taylorism conformed the factory worker into a cog in the factory machine, remote working turns us into an IP address. You might think I’m being dramatic, and maybe I am, but when your business is nothing more than a network of machines swapping files with each other, eventually the people operating those machines fade into the background. Talking heads floating on a screen just don’t collaborate or create in the same way as living human beings sharing a space together despite what the tech companies advertise. I’ll also make a point that borders on sentimental. Imagine if The Office existed in this new work environment. They might have been more efficient, but their work would also have been less meaningful. The Office without the office would have changed their work to mere drudgery. 2020 has normalized human beings not being in the same physical space. This is unnatural and inhumane, but now that corporations know they might be able to make a little extra money, they incentivized to maintain this new normal.
On the other hand, you could argue that 2020 has rebuked Taylorism in the office. After all, filling thousands of square feet of office space with cubicle people working eight-hour shifts sitting behind computer screens doesn’t look all too different from a factory floor. Maybe Taylorism has already come to the office and 2020 has given us the opportunity to break its hold and do work in a new, life-giving way. Thousands of people working at home might be devastating for cities that rely on office workers for their economic well being, but it might be good for those office workers. So many people now have the ability to stay at home, spend more time with family and less time in their cars, and do their work at non-standard hours of the day. I have friends who can’t wait to get back to the office, but I probably have an equal number of friends who never want to go back. Another advantage is that remote work allows you to change jobs without uprooting your family. Technology has untethered us to places and has given millions of workers a freedom that few have previously enjoyed. We should be warned however. Technology is notorious about breaking its promises. One of the biggest promises of digital technology is efficiency. “Look at how much easier your work can be!” Unfortunately, that promise of efficiency is misleading at best. Imagine thinking that working at your home – with all of its distractions and diversions, screaming children and barking dogs – will make you more efficient! How many of our lives are less stressed, less chaotic, more slow because of the “efficiency” of technology? No, the efficiency of technology just opens up a new imperative for us to fill all of our saved time with more busyness than ever. Remote work has left us more fatigued than ever. Not just because we spend all day trying to interact on a computer screen, but also because our lives are out of balance. Suddenly, we realize we are working past midnight on far too many days because we spent the rest of the day balancing all of life’s urgencies (or diversions).
I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have the answer to this question. I’m still thinking about it. I know that the nature of work is changing, but it remains to be seen exactly how it is changing and whether those changes will actually lead to flourishing or not. If you work in one of these jobs, I’d love to hear your perspective/feedback.
*Google also dictates the way you think about God. A technology that is designed to answer your every question in a fraction of a second will naturally recalibrate your expectations and disappointments in regards to God.
**For nerds only: Craig Gay makes a compelling case that the technology that actually gave birth to the modern world including the Industrial Revolution was currency. Currency is a type of technology which creates all sorts of new imperatives including the “need” for more efficient and dehumanizing manufacturing processes in order to make more currency.