The Myth of Technology Creating Leisure Time

I guess it depends on your perspective, but from the 1970s we have been told that IT would free us up to do more interesting things with our time by making us make us more productive and more efficient at work. IT promised to take away the ‘boring’ work, and yet at the same time make us richer.

For most of us this hasn’t happened. We are working longer hours and true wealth has not increased greatly. Granted, IT has and is creating wealth, efficiency and productivity, it has improved health, put dishwashers in our homes, given us mobile communication and much more choice generally. But it has also allowed us to do a lot of unnecessary things. Parkinson’s law applies – any spare time or opportunity which technology has created, we have immediately used. Hence for example there are over 200 million ‘tweets’ and about 4.5 billion ‘likes’ generated daily. And if we all got as much paper post as we now get email and texts at least some of us would not be able to open the front door on our return from work each day. You wonder how we survived 50 years ago.

The problem is the very fact that IT lets us do things that were not possible before .. so we do them, whether or not it is sensible, often not simplifying but complicating things. Worse, IT has allowed (made?) us operate ‘always on’ 24×7 and has fooled ourselves into thinking that multi-tasking is effective and putting us in control (scientific evidence shows some are better at this than others, but quality and reflection suffer).

Remember the Hi-Fi systems of the 1970s? All those lights, buttons and stacked units, with graphic equalisers which compensated for the size, shape and acoustics of your room? And we fell for it. IT is going through a similar phase, but as with Hi-Fi, simplicity will ultimately win – the most expensive Hi-Fi systems are now often the most simple – e.g. Denon, Bose, Bang and Olufsen.

IT is still in its infancy and we will become more mature in how to use it to enrich our lives (not just make us richer). That is how we will regain control. Social media use will be tempered and will certainly not replace real interaction, any more than TV and DVDs have replaced going to the theatre or a live concert. In the workplace IT use will also change from a ‘production line’ mentality to be a positive differentiator of business culture and work-life balance. For example, businesses will have to work harder to retain talent and flexible working enabled by IT will become critical as a differentiator, not just as a means to drive increased productivity. Faster data processing will be less important that effective information use in a knowledge-based economy.

Indeed, there is an argument that whilst the agricultural and industrial revolutions did away with menial tasks requiring lots of manpower, the IT revolution will do away with skilled jobs where judgement is needed. The prospect is of course a bit scary, but maybe we will then get the free time we all thirst for.

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