There’s a Portlandia sketch called “Technology Loop” that would be funny if it weren’t quite so accurate. Fred Armisen is sitting at a table surrounded by devices—a laptop, an iPhone, a tablet—and he’s caught in a vicious circle of digital chores. Scan email! Read a blog post! Rearrange Netflix queue! Monitor text messages! And back again, the cycle repeating itself when the first step might conceivably require another check-in. Armisen is so busy keeping up with his technology that he doesn’t have time to actually do anything, caught in a maelstrom of online media.
That sketch is what immediately came to mind when reading philosopher and video game designer Ian Bogost’s recent essay “Hyperemployment” in The Atlantic. According to Bogost, our definition of work, and how leisure time is separated from work, has changed over the last decade, particularly under the influence of the Internet. The Web is giving us more responsibilities, not less. “For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed—committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well,” he wrote. These jobs are, in part, what entrap Armisen.
Though you might not want to, think about your email for a second. Constantly reloading Gmail, checking for messages, replying to those that need replying to, questing for the mythical state of Inbox Zero—it feels like a job. Which it is, and an endless one at that: “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,” Bogost wrote. Email is both work and a conduit for yet more work. It provides “a way for employees to outsource work to one another ... emails create obligation on the part of a recipient without any prior agreement,” he continues. In fact, workers spend around 28 percent of time on the job writing emails, according to a recent McKinsey report.
Sending an email to a co-worker to remind them to respond to an earlier email you sent is Sisyphean in the extreme. It’s work without a meaningful outcome. We are also constantly engaged in the work of email outside of the typical nine-to-five job hours, catching up with the endless churn at night or on weekends, creating more work for ourselves and others. “It would seem that work has overtaken leisure almost entirely,” Bogost wrote.
The solution is to understand that checking email once more or refreshing Facebook again is not actually a duty but rather a conscious choice.
THE WORD “LABOR” USUALLY brings to mind factory workers sweating over manufacturing machines. Yet the workers of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution actually had a much more regimented sense of labor than we do today. Work was impossible outside of the factory, leaving the rest of the day distinctly separated from the job. The empty period of the day was a valuable commodity. “Free time, disposable time, is wealth itself,” Karl Marx wrote in his 1867 Capital. “A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals, and so forth, is absorbed by his labor for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden.”
With our email and continual status updates, we are Marx’s worst nightmare. Even the activities we think of as leisure today—hanging out on Facebook or finding the best YouTube videos to share—are a form of labor for larger corporate entities. Facebook (which is worth $120 billion) and Twitter ($24 billion) are valuable companies only because of the content that their users produce, which attracts more users, which the businesses then sell to advertisers as their primary source of revenue. For our part, we now view producing such free content for our friends and followers as a social responsibility. So much the better for the businesses, who neglect to share with us their profits. (According to one calculator, my Twitter presence to date is worth around $1,113.)
Do you want to be engaged in labor as soon as you wake up in the morning or while laying next to your partner in bed after a long day of yet more work? In order to preserve our own sanity in the age of hyperemployment, we must acknowledge our tweeting, email-checking, reblogging, and status-updating as labor and deal with it accordingly. Here are a few ways to help you do that.
The defining characteristic of leisure time is that we are able to decide how we spend it. Unlike labor, Marx wrote, free activity “is not dominated by the pressure of an extraneous purpose ... the fulfillment of which is regarded as a natural necessity or a social duty.” The problem we face today is that our online leisure activities increasingly take on the character of social duties: We have to post on Instagram or Like a friend’s status because if we don’t, we aren’t being properly interconnected.
The solution is to understand that checking email once more or refreshing Facebook again is not actually a duty but rather a conscious choice. Think about what you really want to be doing with your time rather than what will get you the most attention on the Internet.
DIVIDE YOUR DAY
The work/life division has become blurred to unrecognition in the Digital Age, but separating labor from leisure is an age-old problem. The best answer is to unplug from your job as completely as possible when you’re able. In the English philosopher Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, which illustrates a proposal for a perfect society, work takes up exactly six hours—no more, no less.
Out of these six hours, “three of which are before dinner and three after, they then sup,” More wrote (in the 16th century, dinner was much earlier in the day, and supper a lighter meal in the evening). At 8 p.m., everyone sleeps for eight hours. “The rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating and sleeping is left to every man’s discretion,” according to More.
Creating a specific amount of time and space to devote to leisure helps make it distinct from work; but it can still be productive. You must choose the right thing to do with your free time: More’s Utopians “are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness but must employ it in some proper exercise,” he wrote. The philosopher’s recommended activity? Reading, of course.
KNOW YOUR JOB
Finally, separate real work from fake work that simply feels productive. That’s easy when your job is piling bricks or building furniture, but not so much with online labor. As a journalist, my constant excuse for wasting time updating social media is that it helps me promote myself and make useful contacts. But what I should really be doing is getting down to reporting and writing.
So what excuses are you using to avoid the actual work you need to be doing? Maybe you just need to send a few more emails before you get started, spreading the labor around. Or you have to update a spreadsheet with your progress on sending said emails. This article could even be your excuse! If you’re feeling hyperemployed, then the best thing to do is to figure out exactly what your job is and get to work—then, afterward, enjoy your leisure time.