Out of Network

Controlling workers by controlling their technology use

Recently, the discussion of technology usage has taken what might be called a “health turn”: Articles diagnose our “infobesity,” for instance, or claim phones are the real e-cigarettes. Self-help books with the titles How to Break Up With Your Phone or The Distraction Addiction urge tech moderation, or “digital Sabbaths.” These warnings are part of what anthropologist Adam Fish calls “digital healthism,” an emerging discourse that promotes the abstinence of tech use to enhance personal health and well-being.

On the surface, digital healthism appears to resemble the anti-TV discourse in the 1980s, when the calls to curb tech use tended to come from tech outsiders: psychologists, politicians, and teachers alike. But this time the concerns are emerging from an unlikely source: Silicon Valley itself. In late 2017, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya expressed “tremendous guilt” about the harms of social media in “ripping society apart.” Other Silicon Valley executives reportedly keep their children and themselves from their own “addictive” products, identifying with the iconic proverb from Scarface: “never get high on your own supply.” And Justin Rosenstein, the programmer behind the Facebook “like,” is one of several Silicon Valley engineers who feels guilty for having accelerated an “attention economy” in which platforms compete to colonize users’ time. Describing his regret to the Guardian that his invention was being used as a dopamine hit to placate users, Rosenstein has responded by launching Asana, a data-analytics company aimed at improving workers’ productivity.

The concern with “addictive” technology appears to be mainly about what the epidemic of distraction does to productivity, a tale that’s been spun to workers for over a hundred years

This new venture is indicative of the health turn in whole. Cries of “technology addiction” may seem to stem from a moral concern with users’ quality of life, but much as sociologist Jock Young found in his 1970s research into attitudes toward recreational drug users, the problem people have is less with the behavior itself than with its interference with work. When technology is deemed “addictive,” it is not phone use itself or its effects on individual well-being that mainly bothers commentators. The concern appears more to be what the epidemic of distraction does to productivity, a tale that’s been spun to workers for over a hundred years: What is “healthy” is simply what improves their job performance.

In the early 20th century, this was how Taylorism was sold to factory workers. By fragmenting procedures on assembly lines, work would become less demanding and infringe less on their leisure. For so-called knowledge workers today, the ruse has been reversed: Leisure has been blended into work to supposedly make workplaces more informal and fulfilling. This emphasis has no more to do with employee well-being than time-motion studies did in the era of scientific management. Because fewer efficiency gains can now be made through deskilling and streamlining jobs, the key has become to capture more of the cognitive output and life experiences of “flexible” workers for value production, whether through open-plan offices, corporate breakout spaces, or shared intranets like Slack. These collaborative working spaces afford camaraderie and, critically, capture asynchronous labor in networks that depend on phones to sustain continual connectivity.

Moreover, political theorist Jodi Dean has argued that the use of Facebook and other social platforms that extend beyond formal work relations are part of what she terms “communicative capitalism” — where human interaction is appropriated and turned toward profit. From this perspective, the increasing number of hours spent with online platforms measures their increasing exploitation. Until recently, these platforms assumed there was no limit to how much users could be made to want to connect. But if the emergence of digital detoxes and similar “mindful” approaches to phone use are any indication, we may be reaching peak connectedness. Digital healthism could be taken as a sign that a sizable number of people have decided that they do not use social media but rather social media uses them, rendering them unwell in the process. In The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, David W. Hill labels the modern malaises of anxiety, stress, and depression as “communicative diseases,” by-products of an economy that, in valuing efficient exchange over meaningful bonds, fragments social communication.

While platforms like Facebook benefit from an excess of communicative labor, the wage-paying employer is left with a hyperconnected worker that struggles to focus on job-related tasks or risks burnout. As a result, contemporary managerial discourse increasingly lauds the benefits of unplugging. Even before social media, nearly 15 years ago, the Boston Consulting Group developed an internal unplugging program to address its high employee turnover. The program required employees to disconnect during one working day of the week: no emails, no BlackBerrys (this was 2004), and no work. Participating employees, the company found returned to the job with more vigor and a renewed sense of work-life balance. The group recommended that its consultants also take regular breaks and moderate their digital connections to avoid burnout. Further well-being research suggests stressed workers make more mistakes, have higher health insurance rates, and take more sick days.

Today’s workplace is littered with more digital distractions than in 2004. Notifications flash on screens like blips on a radar, bottomless newsfeeds afford endless scrolling, and Fortnite, Two Dots and other “sticky” mobile games linger at workers’ fingertips. These interruptions are deadly for tasks that require sustained concentration: reading, notetaking, report writing. With devices being blamed for workers’ loss of concentration, Google has recently announced a suite of “Digital Wellbeing” functionalities for Android phones, including daily feedback on time spent on device, options to bundle third-party notifications into single alerts, and nudges to resist “distracting” services like YouTube. With the alleged architects of tech addiction co-opting the tenets of unplugging, digital healthism goes full circle.

The idea of the always-connected knowledge worker who checks email constantly is supplemented with the digitally mindful employee, who strives for and attains deep and uninterrupted periods of work

Making the workplace more distraction-free may seem to make it “healthier,” but it merely re-Taylorizes it, decluttering the networked assembly line: laptops are banned from meetings; workers are told check emails less frequently, and so on. Tech use is deemed “unhealthy” only when connectivity is deemed “mindless”—  that is, compromising the knowledge worker’s capacity to pay attention and turn it into work product for the salary-paying employer.

The idea of the always-connected knowledge worker who blends work and nonwork time with digital technology — checking email constantly and responding as speedily as possible — is thus supplemented with the digitally mindful employee, who strives for and attains deep and uninterrupted periods of work. This is the much-vaunted state of “flow,” which according to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is a pleasurable state of being lost in one’s work. It echoes what author Carl Newport calls “deep work,” where intensely focused workers perform at their highest cognitive capabilities.

These blissful periods of labor seem like a win-win for both worker and employer. Yet it is the employer who chiefly benefits. Disconnectionism recodes self-care as the maintenance of a normative level of productivity, with social media diets serving as ascetic rituals of discipline and focus. Workers discipline themselves from the urge to check out social media feeds or news websites, to develop resiliency to the fluff that distracts them from the task at hand. But star employees are only as free as the Stakhanovites subjected to Taylorism before them. Escaping from distractions is more for bosses than workers, just as “mindfulness” is code to eliminate mindless scrolling — that is, cognitive effort not captured by one’s direct employer.

Employers desire both well-connected and focused workers; the emergence of digital healthism means they can have their cake and eat it too. Organizations used to have to block employees’ access to social networks on the suspicion they compromise deep work, but with internet jamming programs like Self Control or Cold Turkey, workers will restrict their access themselves. Then there’s the “Do Not Disturb” chat status, the productivity equivalent of the “No Smoking” sign and a projection of focus and productive fitness. The semiotics of Do Not Disturb is a signal to the wider network that this worker is not to be interrupted. Similarly, switching on Out of Office serves not only to create a “healthy” distance between the worker and their networks of colleagues and clients but also transform a period of absence into a productive one. The benefit of automatic reply is to allow for email triage, ensuring only the most considered material gets through.

Disconnection as a form of self-care could be a means to address the ailments that communicative capitalism produces. Yet individual acts of disconnection do nothing to change the living conditions we’re stuck with. Jamming your access to the internet to perform deep work is the equivalent of recycling your plastics and glassware to address pollution. Both feel good and project virtue but fall short of addressing the endemic structures that are the root of environmental degradation. Similarly, such practices as digital detoxing or unplugging individualize systemic issues of mass corporate surveillance or privacy exploitation that require collective action and structural reform. These self-regulatory modes of disconnecting have ideological knock-on effects, blurring the relationship between the responsibility of the self and society and diverting attention from new possibilities of how social media services might be better supplied.

Another consequence of disconnection as care is that it trickles its underlying ethos of productivity into all facets of existence. Michel Foucault argued that the emergence of self-monitoring practices in the West fused subjectivity to a hyper-instrumentalized life of constant goal-setting as a process of normalization. This was my experience when using Mute and Moment, phone-monitoring apps that provide regular feedback on the time spent on your device. These apps do not distinguish between work and leisure, and instead interpret all time on devices as time-wasting; on Mute every update is accompanied with a glaring emoticon and moralizing message. This leaves little room for idle phone play or digital wayfaring, requiring you to instead ring-fence every moment of digital leisure to avoid the app misinterpreting what you’re doing. If the goal is to “nudge” you off your device, the actual effect is to nudge you toward endless micro-project-management, transforming downtime into something structured, obedient, and explicitly purposeful.

A friend once told me he saw no pleasure in eating, seeing food purely as fuel. This is what the ethos of productivity risks reducing play into: a “recharging the batteries” process subservient to work. If disconnection as care is subsumed under an ethos of productivity, it risks reinforcing the idea that any nonproductive or nonintentional modes of disconnection — such as daydreaming or reverie — are eccentric or abnormal. Such pursuits risk being sidelined if the construction of “health” or normality continues to be ruled by the value of efficiency. If the game is self-improvement, perhaps we must disconnect from how we value work itself rather than the technologies upon which it increasingly depends.

Alex Beattie is a writer and PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington and is researching ways in which people disconnect from the internet.