Multitasking Humans and Work-Life Balance

Susanne Skinner’s post yesterday on Work/Life Balance reminded me that this concept once did not exist—or it existed in a much different form—for office workers. Factory and mill workers have historically worked long hours and a nineteenth-century work week for most included Saturday or at least Saturday morning. For laborers, work-life balance meant cramming housework and family responsibilities into the few hours when you didn’t have to be at the loom or on the production line and before you slept from exhaustion.

The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean HowellsBut office workers went in to work at a set time and left at a set time, regardless of whether that was 9:00 to 5:00 or longer. While an ambitious person might put in more time, one was not expected to arrive early or stay late as a matter of course. An office worker might bring home something to read or spend time there writing a work-related document but it was not expected of him. No one assumed that you would work constantly or be continually available. Reading a book like “The Rise of Silas Lapham” (1885) gives one a sense of a more structured approach to office work.  There was a big place for it in a man’s life but it did not control his life. And when he was home, he was home.

neuro headset technologyComputers Changed Everything 

I think that attitude changed with the introduction of computers—particularly personal computers. The addition of laptops, smartphones, tablets, Bluetooth devices and other mobile technology has exacerbated the trend until now work and life can be — and often are — inseparable. Technology is blurring the difference between devices and human beings in at least six ways:

  1. Computers can multi-task, therefore people are expected to juggle multiple projects simultaneously.
  2. Computers run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, therefore people are expected to work 24 x 7 and be prepared to reply, respond, or produce pretty much on demand.
  3. Computers have no families (children, spouses, parental units), therefore people are expected to behave as if they have no families—and no demands on their work time from those families.
  4. Computers don’t catch colds, get the flu, have migraines, eat bad food, break a leg, or suffer from any other physical ailments, therefore people are expected to be just as reliable.
  5. Computers don’t have babies and thus require no maternity or paternity leave. Therefore people are expected to minimize any such activities or their incursions into working time.
  6. Computers have no emotions, therefore any display of emotion—whether positive or negative—is a sign of weakness or immaturity.

Thinking with the Enemy 

With the addition of each new layer of technology, people have both geared up and tuned in, not only acquiescing with but actually eager to participate in, the trend of dehumanization. We tuck smartphones into pockets and purses, wear Bluetooth headsets in the car, and carry our laptops or tablets with us everywhere.  We hear people talking to thin air on sidewalks, in cafes, in offices, and in public buildings. Who hasn’t at least once thought the person behind him in line was talking to him only to discover that he was overhearing a private conversation?  Who hasn’t wondered if that woman in the bank is hearing voices like Joan of Arc or just talking to her mom?

The next development, underway now, is smart clothes—wearable technology.–and Bluetooth is producing them.  There are market research reports on wearable technology and you can see the latest development for yourself at the WearableTechWorld conference.  The step after that is wetware: or biologically compatible ,brain-computer interface technology. This starts with headsets that are being tested today and will inevitably evolve into tech that is inserted into, grafted onto, or genetically modified for the human body.

Lando Calrissian's aide in The Empire Strikes BackScience fiction authors have been dealing with this concept for some time because predicting the future and asking “what if” are their stock in trade.  Mainstream people saw a human/computer combination on the big screen back in 1980: Lando Calrissian’s aide had one wrapped around his head in The Empire Strikes Back.  And we have seen multiple movies and TV programs in which a character is inelegantly “jacked into” a computer through a port in the base of the skull.

But What If . . . 

The “What Ifs” generated by this trend toward every-more-personal computing are easy to imagine:

  • Job Requirement:  Are we, through our acceptance of each new item of personal technology, approaching a point at which this kind of brain/technology interface will be required for getting a job, just as taking a drug test or accepting a company smartphone are now?
    “Now just sign the release form here Mr. Parkman and then report to the clinic on Friday morning for your tech insertion surgery. One of our IT representatives will be on hand to boot it up as soon as you come out of the anesthesia.”
  • Job Requirement:  Will prospective employees have to sign a form agreeing to be “on” 24/7 to do the job?
    “Employees must be available to management at any time, regardless of the hour. Refusal to accept or respond to a bio-query will incur disciplinary action.  Three rejections of communication will be considered grounds for termination.”
  • Non-compete Agreement: Can a non-compete agreement be enforced by attaching proprietary technology to an employee’s body?
    “Should you leave International Robot and move to a competitor (see Attachment F for a complete list), the company will have the right to send a small jolt of electricity through your neural implant every 30 minutes until you return.”
  • Status Symbol:  Will it become a status symbol to have technology embedded in one’s brain?
    “I get a huge raise, a window office, a company car and a fifth-gen BrainTwizz neural implant with the optical cortex upgrade. It runs like a greased weasel.
  • Corporate Espionage:  Could an employee be sure that he is protecting his new employer’s secrets from a former employer’s corporate espionage?
    “Don’t worry, I left in the Listen-only Module so we’ll hear everything his development team says while they build the new product.  With the LOM enabled, we’ll have our version on the market before they do.”
  • Personal Interface:  How can one possibly strive for work-life balance when that person’s body is itself an interface to channels of communication?
    “You hear a baby crying, boss, because the baby is crying. It’s the middle of the night for cripe’s sake and he’s only two weeks old. What did you expect when you called me at two a.m. because you had a bright idea?”
  • Internal Gaming:  Will people write games that can only be played by wetware in the body? How about internal porn?
    “I was playing Rings of Destruction at Starbuck’s and had just reached Level 3 when some idiot stole my car keys right off the table in front of me. I never even saw him.”
  • Security:  And how could we protect ourselves against malware or spyware that has been inserted into the wetware that’s part of our bodies?
    “Don’t worry, heh, heh.  We can tell where she is even if she cuts up her credit cards and turns off her cell phone. I inserted a tracking device in her wetware that pings every 15 minutes. Take a look at the monitor.  Hey, that’s a nice Glock 9 you have there.” 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to exercise my imagination very far to come up with these scenarios. There’s a lot of food for thought here. Opportunity for growth and improvement? Possibly. Room for bad things like crime, addiction, stalking, and spying?  Obviously. The question is how we will react to new and more intrusive forms of technology. Recent history isn’t encouraging, though.

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