September 4th, 2009 - by Golgotha

Is technology really making a difference?

Of course we all love our iPods and Blu-Ray players and doing research before Google came along was slow, often times requiring you to get in your car and go to a library. Anybody remember using library tools such as card catalogs and Microfiche to perform research? Now we can do it from our beds, simply by entering a few words into our mobile device and get instantaneous results; fantastic, no doubt.

Today’s cell phones look like something out of Star Trek. Actually, they look better and have more options.

We truly live in marvelous times. But, what does it all add up to? Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, more productive and in some areas eliminate work altogether. And for the most part I think we can say it’s worked. So how come I, like you, still work forty plus hour work weeks? In fact, since World War 2 the number of hours worked per week has grown. In her recent book, “Willing Slaves – How the Overwork Culture is Ruling our Lives“, Madeleine Bunting states that from 1977 to 1997 Americans working full time have increased their average working hours from 43.6 hours to 47.1 hours each week. (This does not include time required to travel to and from their places of business).[1] How can this be? In addition to working longer hours, many families have both family members working. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics states that between 1950 and 2000 the number of individuals in the active labor force grew 227 percent from 62 million to 141 million.[2]

The whole goal of a software developer is to make someone’s life easier. If we’re successful our software or device will allow a user to be more proficient, saving them time and allowing them to get more work done. But does it really matter if the user is now able to get their work done faster if the end result is still working forty hours? What does it matter if you can get twice the amount of work done? Forty hours is forty hours. I’m sure that by increasing the amount of work we are able to get done each day that someone benefits, someone higher up, but it isn’t you and it isn’t me.

It seems like life just keeps moving at an ever accelerated pace. Like a merry-go-round that started off slow and built up speed. Perhaps it’s moving so fast now that we can’t jump off? Or maybe we still don’t feel we need to jump off?

Author Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael gives us a parable that may explain what has happened. It’s certainly interesting.

Terpsichore is among the places you would enjoy visiting in the universe. This was a planet where people emerged in the usual way in the community of life. For a time they lived as all others live, simply eating whatever came to hand. But after a couple of million years of living in this way, they noticed it was very easy to promote the regrowth of their favorite foods. You might say they found a few easy steps that would have this result. They didn’t have to take these steps in order to stay alive, but if they took them, their favorite foods were always more readily available. These were, of course, the steps of a dance.

A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort. As here on earth, the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance. Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month. Others found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every second or third day. Still others saw no reason why they shouldn’t live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single day. Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods and leaving everything to them. For this reason, they called themselves Leavers.

But one group of Leavers eventually said to themselves, “Why should we just live partially on the foods we favor? Why don’t we live entirely on the foods we favor? All we have to do is devote a lot more time to dancing.” So this one particular group took to dancing several hours a day. Because they thought of themselves as taking their welfare into their own hands, we’ll call them Takers. The results were spectacular. The Takers were inundated with their favorite foods. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and storage of surpluses — something that had never been necessary when everyone was just dancing a few hours a week. The members of this manager class were far too busy to do any dancing themselves, and since their work was so critical, they soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. But after a few years these leaders of the Takers began to notice that food production was dropping, and they went out to see what was going wrong. What they found was that the dancers were slacking off. They weren’t dancing several hours a day, they were dancing only an hour or two and sometimes not even that much. The leaders asked why.

“What’s the point of all this dancing?” the dancers said. “It isn’t necessary to dance seven or eight hours a day to get the food we need. There’s plenty of food even if we just dance an hour a day. We’re never hungry. So why shouldn’t we relax and take life easy, the way we used to do?”

The leaders saw things very differently, of course. If the dancers went back to living the way they used to, then the leaders would soon have to do the same, and that didn’t appeal to them at all. They considered and tried many different schemes to encourage or cajole or tempt or shame or force the dancers into dancing longer hours, but nothing worked until one of them came up with the idea of locking up the food.

“What good will that do?” he was asked.

“The reason the dancers aren’t dancing right now is that they just have to reach out and take the food they want. If we lock it away, they won’t be able to do that.”

“But if we lock the food away, the dancers will starve to death!”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” the other said with a smile. “We’ll link dancing to receiving food — so much food for so much dancing. So if the dancers dance a little, they’ll get a little food, and if they dance a lot, they’ll get a lot. This way, slackers will always be hungry, and dancers who dance for long hours will have full stomachs.”

“They’ll never put up with such an arrangement,” he was told.

“They’ll have no choice. We’ll lock the food away in storehouses, and the dancers will either dance or they’ll starve.”

“The dancers will just break into the storehouses.”

“We’ll recruit guards from among the dancers. We’ll excuse them from dancing and have them guard the storehouses instead. We’ll pay them the same way we pay the dancers, with food — so much food for so many hours of guarding.”

“It will never work,” he was told. But oddly enough it did work…

So here we are today, dancing away and no amount of technology seems to matter. We keep creating better and better technology and yet we dance more and more.

I love being a software developer. I love coming up with creative solutions to peoples problems. Over the past ten years I have been fortunate enough to work on a variety of projects ranging from POS software, market analysis software, life and health insurance software and educational school system software. For the most part the feedback has been positive. But I’ve yet to have anyone say “thanks to your software I am now able to spend more time with my family.” In the end I don’t know that I have made anyone’s life better. I may have allowed them to get more work done in a day by speeding up their processes. I may have simplified their work life and improved their experience, but have I made their life any better?

“I submit that Egyptian workers, relatively speaking, got as much out of building Khufu’s pyramid as Microsoft workers will get out of building Bill Gates’s pyramid (which will surely dwarf Khufu’s a hundred times over, though it will not, of course, be built of stone).”

“It took Khufu twenty-three years to build his Great Pyramid at Giza, where some eleven hundred stone blocks, each weighing about two and a half tons, had to be quarried, moved, and set in place every day during the annual building season, roughly four months long. Few commentators on these facts can resist noting that this achievement is an amazing testimonial to the pharaoh’s iron control over the workers of Egypt. I submit, on the contrary, that pharaoh Khufu needed to Lose Weight Exercise no more control over his workers at Giza than pharaoh Bill Gates Lose Weight Exercises over his workers at Microsoft.”

Throughout time man has asked – Who are we? Where did we come from and where are we going? Perhaps these questions are more pertinent now more than ever…

What are your thoughts?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work-life_balance
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time

17 Responses to “Is Technology Making a Difference?”

1 Jack Hughes

Couldn’t agree more… we’ve built quite a mouse wheel for ourselves. 😉

2 Duncan McFarlane

Great post. Kind of describes our crazy western world in a nutshell. It drives me mad how we’re all trying to earn as much money as possible to go out and buy the latest product the marketing people are trying to sell us (especially when we had another product that already did the job well enough).

I live in the UK where I am self employed. I don’t have a big business, but I earn enough to pay the bills each month.

I don’t have a shiny car (I have an 18 year old Volvo), I don’t wear designer clothes, I don’t have a big house.

My kids have just finished their 6 weeks school holiday and I spent nearly everyday with them. Drove me mad some days, but I still regarded myself as being lucky to be able to spend loads of time with them.

What’s really important to me is that I don’t go out and work for ‘the man’ anymore.

I’ve managed to sneak out of the rat race, but kind of feel guilty for doing so. Not everybody can – people are too tied into big financial responsibilities. Perhaps its time those big fat cat bankers should be feeling guilty.

3 Garmin Nuvi 1490T

Daniel Quinn offers readers a way out of the dilemma between inattention and blame. It is tough to hold the attention on global problems and still imagine solutions and reasons for hope.

4 Cooker

Good article. Thanks

5 Golgotha

@Jack – Yes, it seems that way to me too. I wonder how many other people look out and notice the mouse wheel that they’re running on? Do they see it? Do they see it and not care? Or do we just run because what other alternative is there?

@Duncan – “My kids have just finished their 6 weeks school holiday and I spent nearly everyday with them…” That’s great, exactly what life should be like. Instead of 9 hours at work and 2 with the kids…

6 Joe Mirwaisi

It’s a strange world we live in my friend. We’re among the lucky portion of the planet’s populace who are no longer as vested in the day-day struggles of life. Food\Shelter\etc. have gone from being a driving necessity to a forgone conclusion.

IMO — most people are working so hard for intangible goals. Rather than having a concrete focus, they instead spend all their efforts “Keeping up with the Jones'”

And so they’re never happy, since they base the quality of their worth on how they measure against others. I heard it yesterday — don’t judge your insides based on other people’s outsides 🙂

7 Patrick

For starters, to address a theme in the comments:

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/sheeple.png

Everybody knows the score – to think otherwise is a little hubristic, no?

But more to the point of the post – I have a different take on this [Mark (Golgotha) knows I like to be contrary anyway…].

(First, since you opened with ipods and blue-ray, I’ll assume we’re talking first-world here. Given that…)

You’re suggesting two things:
1. We are doing more work despite these technological enhancements
2. We don’t want to be working more (we’d like to be working less)

To the first point (We are doing more work than we used to):
For starters this might be a bit of a statistics-tweaker. My quick census search told a slightly different story for the US.

But more importantly: Quality of Life. Has technology changed the hours we work? No. But has it change the way we work, and what we do for work? Certainly. And have those changes translated into an improved quality of life? Absolutely. We used to go to work on a farm, or tanning leather, or in the depths of a coal mine. Today people like you and me spend 40+ hours a week sitting in climate controlled buildings splitting our time between writing code and reading the 140 character ramblings of perfect strangers. Which is harder “work”? We’ve certainly each made our choices…

To the second point (We don’t want to be working more):
This is implicit in your argument, and I’m not sure it’s true. Humans need to “work”. The fact that hours worked per week is remarkably steady, and is largely consistent across continents might demonstrate that we *need* to work 40+ hours a week (yes the French have a 35 hour work week – but are we going to quibble over a 5 hour difference in a 168 hour week?). So I’m not sure we really want to work less. We might want to do different work – but that’s a separate point (and something we have a lot of control over, even if we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise). Time-Of-Work is a rather arbitrary measure of success or happiness. I appreciate that I’m probably one of the lucky ones – but I like my work. If the week-length magically expanded by 50%, I’d keep about the same ratio of work to not-work. To me, technology has no influence on this equation.

Technology is less about reducing work than it is about changing what we’re working on. When I have a tedious task that I decide to automate with technology, I don’t do it in the hope of going home 10 minutes earlier. I do it in the hope of getting to spend that 10 minutes working on something more valuable. That’s what technology has allowed – and in spades.

My 2 cents anyway…

8 Frans

@Patrick: So because the amount of time we work is roughly equal in the first world countries you argue that’s the way we want it? Sorry, but work is what you do in order to pay the bills and to be able to go on vacation, or whatever may make you happy. To quote Red from That ’70s Show.

Work is work, Eric. You don’t show up late, you don’t make excuses, and you don’t not work. If it wasn’t “work,” they wouldn’t call it work. They’d call it “super-wonderful, crazy-fun time!” Or Skippedydoo!”

And what job would not require specialization? Sure, theoretically I could decide to be, say, a welder for a few weeks, but how would that work out in practice? It would require sufficient planning beforehand, and afterward you’d have to stay a welder until you find something else again. Otherwise, you’d be jobless. Additionally, if you had a job where you were more or less free to pick your own times to start and stop working (like, if your wife/child/friend suddenly has time available) switching jobs to something that might seem fun for a while might put you in a position where you’d have to abide some kind of 9-6 life. Not to mention how your constant job-switching would look to employers… Maybe you’re just lucky, maybe you’re right and most people are quite happy with the way things are, but I whole-heartedly disagree.

9 Patrick

@Frans,
Let me clarify: I didn’t mean to say ‘because work-time is consistent across countries, we must want it that way’. I meant: The very long history of consistent work times suggests that we might need it that way.

We largely define ourselves by the work we do. What is one of the first things you ask a person you just met: “What do you do?”. Little kids follow dad out and pretend to help mow the lawn – we even ask children “what do you want to do when you grow up?” There is pride and dignity in work.

As for the specifics of a 40 hour week – we’ve been working this way for a very long time. If everybody hates it, why hasn’t it changed? Generally speaking when large groups of people want something, they realize their shared mission and try to get it. Where’s the effort to change this? I hear complaints (but complaining doesn’t count…), but no real effort to change.

Perhaps (and I’m going to get this quote wrong, but something like:) “people who live in a golden age tend to complain about how yellow everything looks”

ok.. I think I’m up to 4 cents now – sorry.

10 Frans

@Patrick,

We’ve been ingrained with thousands of years of a work week, be it 35 hours or more. The feudal system, slavery, and so on and so forth prevailed for many centuries without people staging a revolution. As long as a sufficient amount of people is happy enough (panem et circenses) won’t the voice for change fall on a deaf ear anyway? Right now the only party that wants such a thing also wants to quit the EU, so I’m not exactly jumping at the opportunity to vote for them.

Under the capitalistic system you simply can’t afford to work much less than your competition, or you’re anti-competitive. Given the choice between two equally appealing candidates, the one willing to work 40 hours and the other 35, which candidate would an employer choose? If you’ve got your own business you might be able to afford a little more leeway, but you will have to be available to your customers 7 days a week.

And just because we live in a golden age doesn’t mean we can’t make it platinum. 😉

11 Golgotha

Some initial thoughts:

…We used to go to work on a farm, or tanning leather, or in the depths of a coal mine.

Many people still do. And thank god for them… But I would say that working 40+ hours, in an air conditioned room at even the best job still takes its toll on a person. It shows up in the lack of time to exercise, depression, high blood pressure and addictions. And that’s saying nothing about the indirect affects it has on children.

Humans need to “work”.

Absolutely, no question about it; I agree. It benefits the individual and the community. You must have workers. But forty hours? No, absolutely not. Even the best job and for the record I love my job is not better than spending time with my kids. Who wouldn’t love to get out of work 3 or 4 hours earlier to be able to take your kids to the zoo, or teach them to throw a ball. Even the native American’s didn’t work as much as we do and our food is in the refrigerator.

It would be a quite the conversation on why and how it came to be that we work forty hours, something to do over beers no doubt. You certainly wouldn’t want to just look at the last hundred years or even the last thousand years. You would want to look at the entire span of man. I’m sure that in the end it would come down to money and power. It usually does…

12 Golgotha

Almost making me want to watch “The Gods Must Be Crazy” 🙂

13 Frans

Who wouldn’t love to get out of work 3 or 4 hours earlier to be able to take your kids to the zoo, or teach them to throw a ball.

Or just to read a book. 😉 Even 35 to 40 hours makes quite the difference, regardless of whether it seems small or not. If nothing else, you could use it to do your daily grocery shopping and have the time you’d currently spend shopping for groceries available for other things. For the record, the normal Dutch work week is between 36 and 38 hours for an average person.

14 Gloria Reibin

I find that the longer I am on the Internet and the more tools I have to make life easier, the more time I spend using the tools.

I’m having fun with my blogs and websites, but I’m beginning to lose focus.

It’s kind of like, computers were supposed to eliminate paper. Instead, we accumulate more paper as we seem to have to print out everything.

15 metamerism

Nothing is good or bad ,it’s all about perception.

Anyhow thoughts are well explained. keep fullfilling your thought.
nice article.
i am also devloper (in initial stage)and i also wonder about such things.i can imagine how you are feeling when youhave written this.

16 Alex White

I wrote a response/follow-up/sequel post to this post on my blog because I kind of agree with you but on a different level!

http://toaiw.blogspot.com/2011/02/re-is-technology-really-making.html

That would explain what I think of this in detail ^^

Thx for the inspiration

17 Technology Blogged

Wow, a lot of debate going on here. Technology will always advance further and further until a point where enough is enough in the consumer world I feel however not the science world.

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