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When Productivity Doesn't Help Workers

Becoming more productive doesn't necessarily make life easier for everyone.

Photo collage by Adam Mignanelli

This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

I am probably not the only one who, upon visiting the walled compound in Mexico City where Leon Trotsky was murdered with an ice ax, envied his writing setup. With the patronage of his mistress, Frida Kahlo, Trotsky and his wife hid from Stalin's goons while the once-mighty Bolshevik hurried to complete his unkind biography of the Soviet leader. Beside the desk where he met his fate still sits the Edison Dictaphone that recorded his words, which his secretary would transcribe. The typescripts, then, came to him for editing and correction—and repeat.

Not bad, if you have some literate humans on hand to dutifully process your sentences. Today, for the rest of us, there are apps. Melissa Gregg, a researcher at Intel and the foremost scholar of such contrivances, has written, "Productivity apps are the digital assistants increasingly required when the gendered labor of the secretary and the wife is not so easily available."

We live in a golden age of self-optimization. The more our work and life take place on computers, the more they can be quantified and optimized. Smartphones and smartwatches are becoming better at letting us monitor a variety of bodily functions (though Oral Roberts University insists the Fitbits issued to students aren't meant to enforce its policy against premarital sex). The resulting information overload has spurred increased demand for apps to manage our attention—to turn off the internet, or at least block its most addicting social networks, so we can focus on allegedly more important activities. Alex Steinhart, co-founder of one such app, OFFTIME, hopes "to enable people to customize their connectivity and unplug just enough."

"Just enough," of course, is a relative quantity. OFFTIME caters to both individual and corporate clients, seeking to balance the potentially competing needs of the self-disciplining user and the disciplinary employer. Does the app primarily service work time or leisure time? Does it seek quantity or quality? Usually, the answer is that these apps blur such lines: Work masquerades as leisure, and quality is measured through quantities.

Consider the Pomodoro Technique®, an offline invention of the 1980s now undergoing an app-fueled revival. It contends that dividing one's work into 25-minute chunks, with breaks in between, results in more productivity than working the same amount of time straight through. Now, Pomodoro apps serve mainly to enforce those breaks in the name of more productive work. Or consider the growing industry of tools that enable highly efficient, "just-in-time" scheduling of hourly shifts. These promise the benefit of fewer unnecessary shifts—cheaper for employers, though for many workers that means a second or third job to make ends meet.

There are few unblemished ideals left in this complicated world, and productivity might seem like one of them. Still, becoming more productive doesn't necessarily bode well for those actually carrying out the productivity. No killer contraption defined the pre-industrial US economy more than Eli Whitney's cotton gin, which made cotton production efficient enough to become big business; this led, however, to an explosion in demand for slaves on Southern plantations to pick the raw material, resulting in the signature moral disaster of American history. The great wearable device of the industrial era, the wristwatch, first appeared en masse in order to synchronize suicidal charges toward enemy trenches during World War I. Clever machines, if we're not careful, can correlate with expendable bodies.

More recently, the chart that describes the relationship between the US worker's productivity and the benefits accruing from it has been dubbed "the jaws of the snake"; beginning in the 1970s, as the jagged line of per-capita production rises upward, the jagged line representing wages stays mainly flat. Read that chart alongside one depicting the fortunes of the investor class, and you see where the value from all that optimized activity went.

What kind of app could shut the snake's jaws? I'm not really sure, but I want one. Maybe a company could set up an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, through which an equity app would assign workers company stock for increasing their productivity. As co-owners, the workers would share in the benefits of their industriousness.

This resembles the logic of most current apps, in which "productivity isolates and sanctifies the individual," according to Gregg. "It elevates an elite class of worker beyond the concerns of the ordinary and the collective." A more collectivist version of the equity app could orchestrate the old trick of the slowdown strike, allowing workers, in unison, to elongate and increase the frequency of their Pomodoro breaks until the company agrees to a wage increase or an appropriate ESOP arrangement.

While the jaws of the snake remain open, we should ask ourselves what purpose all our app-powered productivity serves. Trotsky had before him a world-historical task, time-bound by the likelihood of assassination. How much optimizing do your company's shareholders deserve? Perhaps the urge to procrastinate is telling us something.

This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.