Driven To Distraction
Overwhelmed by too much data and tempted by the escapism offered by the Web, today's workers are giving the lie to the computer productivity myth.
Thursday, April 12, 2001
"I really think the email and instant messaging thing is a lot easier for me," says Collins. "I like the searching and filing capacity. I think I''m like a lot of people who have a lot of interests. It''s necessary for us to get a lot of information about a lot of different things. It''s a problem that affects many people... "
Problem? You follow up with the question, and Collins pauses to think.
"Information overload is a problem," he answers slowly, "it is a problem. It''s not just Internet dudes or journalists, it''s almost everybody. I check the email constantly throughout the day. As soon as it goes off, I check it... Even if I am meeting with someone and the email comes in, I check it."
Collins will also tell you that only about a quarter of his email has any direct bearing on his job or on his role as a planning commissioner. The rest of it is personal communication or information that might be valuable somewhere down the line.
And if you push the question further, Collins will even admit that he thinks the constant interruptions distract him from his work. "I think it does have an impact on the quality, just like television had an impact on our personal relationships."
Collins isn''t alone. And his example points out the fallacies in what has become one of the most hallowed presumptions of the last 30 years--that computers make us faster, more efficient and better human beings.
On the surface, there''s little reason to doubt this belief. We can copy, paste and spellcheck as fast as our fingers can move. We can plug numbers into spreadsheets and print out finished reports without touching a calculator. There''s such a quantity of information available on the Web that we can find the text to any of Shakespeare''s plays or sonnets without leaving our desks. And if we want to talk to someone, we don''t have to walk across the room or even pick up a telephone. All we have to do is point and click at our email. The computer has so revolutionized the office that our workplace productivity should be soaring to stratospheric levels. That''s common knowledge.
The only problem with this "common knowledge" is that it doesn''t recognize human limitations and tendencies. In 1997, author David Shenk wrote Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, one of the first books to take a critical look at new information technology. He says he wrote the book largely in response to the giddy boosterism of computers that was appearing in so many publications. The book gained Shenk a fair amount of publicity, and he became a sought-after commentator and guest columnist both for National Public Radio and a host of print and online publications. In 1999, he released The End of Patience, an anthology of his contributions to various broadcasts and publications.
Although Shenk has moved on from writing about computers and technology, he''s still willing to make some trenchant observations. In a recent phone interview, Shenk put a fine point on what may be the weak link in the line of reasoning that says faster equipment equals faster humans.
"I think [Data Smog] was in reaction to some of the stuff that was coming out in Wired at the time--that if we could find some way to mainline it into our arteries, we would be hyperefficient and hyperenlightened. But that''s just not how people work. You have to be aware of the beautiful limitations of being human. We''re not multitasking creatures; we do one thing at a time."
Our technological marvels have been getting better, faster and cheaper while the wetware--the flesh, blood and brains--lags pitifully behind. It doesn''t matter how good our tools get, we can''t catch up and we never will, and the idea that someday that will happen is mistaken.
"To say that we are literally evolving from year to year just because of this technology is just silly."
games people play
Up until IBM introduced the first personal computer in 1981, computers were the playthings of geeks and technofreaks. Then, suddenly, every office seemed to need a computer.
It was the same year, coincidentally, that Hayes Corporation introduced the first user-friendly modem, allowing computers to link up with the fledgling CompuServe and other databases as well as each other outside the office. But it wasn''t until the mid ''90s, when computer and modem speeds became capable of processing the relatively large amounts of information required by a graphical interface, that the World Wide Web really took off. At the mid-point of 1996, there were fewer than 500,000 Web sites in existence. By the turn of the century, that number had increased exponentially to nearly 500 million sites.
But as the Web grew, so did the range of diversions from work it offered. Not only could computer users research news or scientific databases and exchange serious messages with like-minded individuals, they could also visit an amazing number of pornography and entertainment sites and play games or the stock market while sitting at their desks. After all, what else would they do with all the time they saved using spreadsheets and word-processing software?
Naturally, not all employees waste their days playing games and checking out smuttypix.com. Some of them do their banking or send notes to friends and family.
OK, OK. Seriously. Most on-the-job Internet use is legitimate. But the statistics compiled by researchers are enough to make efficiency experts stop and wonder. Consider these numbers from Websense, a company that produces "Employee Internet Management" software that filters, monitors and reports on employee Internet use. In an attempt to encourage employers to buy their Websense software, the company published on its Web site these findings from a variety of research sources:
o 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday (Sex Tracker).
o Of those who use the Internet both at work and at home, 45 percent say they send personal email more often at work than at home, 33 percent say they read the daily news more often at work than at home, 31 percent gather local information more often at work than at home, 31 percent investigate travel arrangements more often at work than at home, 24 percent visit sites related to hobbies more often at work than at home, and 24 percent participate in contests and sweepstakes more often at work than at home (Jupiter Communications).
o 28 percent of those who made gift purchases did so from their offices or cubicles (Pew Internet & American Life Project).
o During work hours, 9 percent of employees earning under $35K surf the Net for a new job, while 11 percent of workers earning $75K to $100K do the same (Greenfield Online).
And if those stats aren''t enough to make human resource managers tremble, consider this:
o 31.2 percent of employees feel it is appropriate to surf non-work-related sites up to 30 minutes a day, 14.8 percent said up to one hour is appropriate, and 9 percent said over an hour (Vault.com).
Despite his criticisms of computers and Internet technology, author David Shenk confesses to falling prey to the same distractions that can entice office workers away from their duties. He describes it as an "existential gnaw."
"I struggle with it personally," says Shenk. "I get a kind of existential gnaw going after I''ve surfed the Net for a while. It''s all so much; there''s something about it that gets me hopped up and makes it difficult to calm down and do the other stuff that I have to do."
Certainly the employees themselves seem to recognize this, even if they don''t use the same words. According to the Vault.com survey, "56.5 percent of employees feel that surfing the Net or sending non-work-related emails decreases productivity."
Maybe it''s a sign of kinder, gentler management/employee relationships, but there hasn''t been a huge rush by managers to yank the reins on their employees'' "gnaw."
In fact, when IBM was contacted about what kind of support or advice the company offers to businesses who find that their computer/communications systems aren''t paying off or are being misused, the public relations spokesperson--who declined going on record--said that he hadn''t heard about any such productivity studies. In fact, this spokesperson opined, the notion that responsible employees might waste time surfing the Web or sending extraneous email was about as ludicrous as the idea that workers would read a book during work hours. Maybe so, but it''s a lot easier for an employee to mask her activities while sitting at a desk and staring intently at the screen than it is to have her nose stuck in the latest offering by Stephen King or Danielle Steele.
On the other hand, maybe it isn''t so much that employers and managers have given up on reclaiming the lost time as it is a matter of simple expediency. In short, it might cost more time to save time than simply to lose time in the first place.
so many computers, so little time
CTB/McGraw-Hill, the publisher of standardized achievement tests for children and adults, employs about 700 people at its Monterey branch, each of whom has a computer with Internet and email access. McGraw-Hill''s director of technology, Bong Park, leads a department of 30 people whose job is to maintain and monitor all those computers and their related networks and systems. (For those of you who can''t get enough statistics, that means about 4.2 percent of McGraw''s local labor pool is dedicated to supporting the systems that help other employees work more efficiently.)
Park says his department already has its hands full taking care of the basic system maintenance, and that actively monitoring employees'' email and Internet use is a low priority, despite the fact that there is a company policy regarding the usage.
According to Park, the company allows employees to use email for personal use on a limited basis, "but we leave it to the user''s discretion." And, although McGraw-Hill prohibits employees from visiting Web sites for non-business use, Park says "we are not strict about it. We haven''t fired anyone, but we have given paper warnings about that."
In fact, about the only monitoring that takes place at McGraw-Hill is visual inspection--if a supervisor actually sees a violation, an employee might be busted. Otherwise the company pretty much takes a hands-off approach.
A similar tactic is used at Pebble Beach Company, where Dominic Van Nes, the vice president of information services, heads a staff of 14 employees to manage the resort''s complex computer systems. Although there are only 400 full-function computers to serve the company''s 2,000 employees, and though only 100 of those have Internet access, there are myriad single-function or dummy terminals that will do only a single task, such as take room reservations.
From the get-go, Van Nes says, there was a decision to limit Internet access to only those people on staff who needed it for business purposes. That''s why, of the 400 computers that could be plugged into the Internet, only one-quarter are.
"The Internet is such a large space that people can end up not using their time wisely," says Van Nes. "So we only give it out where there''s a business reason. [But] it''s becoming more and more difficult to say ''no,'' because more and more people have reason to go on the Internet to research for various reasons."
Van Nes says that the Pebble Beach communications/computer policy allows some personal use of email (which is available to all of the lucky 400), prohibits Internet use for non-business reasons, and prohibits employees from installing their own software onto company computers. That''s the official policy. But, Van Nes adds, "We''re all very busy and no one wants to sit around and play Big Brother. We''re leaving it up to the individual to read the policy and abide by the policy. It''s only when something happens that we find out."
When Van Nes refers to "something" happening, he''s talking about the occasions when his team is called out to remedy a system crash or a virus that shows up on an employee''s computer. Often, Van Nes says, these "something"s happen after an employee''s inappropriate use of the machine. (You can''t help but feel sorry for the schlub who''s sitting at his desk staring at his frozen computer screen, knowing that he has to call Van Nes'' team... and knowing that the personal email or the airline reservation page is fixed on the monitor for all to see. The way Van Nes laughs when discussing such a scenario doesn''t make it seem any better.)
Although both Park and Van Nes say their companies can use software filters that block access to some Web sites, they both point to the deficiencies of these filters.
Sports sites are some of the most visited sites on the Web, and would be surefire candidates for filtering in many companies, particularly if the employees are known to have a predilection for sports activities. But that''s simply not an option for Van Nes, who''s working for a company with employees who must keep track of the news and developments in the sports world. According to Van Nes, "About the only thing we''re filtering out is X-rated material."
Over at McGraw-Hill, Park says his company takes a similarly limited approach. And even that is a headache.
"We have a filter that we can implement that prevents employees from accessing the sites, but we haven''t implemented that because of First Amendment rights," says Park. If that seems like an overly noble stance to take in guaranteeing employees their constitutional rights, there might be a more practical reason a company would think twice about investing too much time in trying to block their employees from visiting some sites.
"There are so many sites coming every day," says Park, "it''s hard to keep up with it. We start with one site name. As time goes by, the list will grow--and that is too much work. There are sites going up and down every day."
In short, just about the time Park might get caught up to block eroticankles.com, he''d likely have to deal with eroticankles.ws, toedelight.tv and babesarches.com
And even if Park or his counterparts were ever to get caught up, or if foolproof software were developed, there might be an even more insidious factor to be considered. As Walt Kelly''s Pogo Possum once uttered, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
the hurrier i go...
There was a popular plaque you could find in almost any hillbilly gift shop in the ''60s. Stamped on a block of wood was a goofy guy with an enormous derriere dragging along on the ground. There are bags under the guy''s eyes, his shoulders droop; he''s just plumb tuckered out. The caption below this sad sack reads: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get... "
Get rid of the guy''s overalls and straw hat and he could be anyone in today''s workplace struggling to keep up with the incessant flow of information provided by those twin miracles of communication, the computer and the Internet. The very tools that are supposed to be helping us may in fact be helping to drag us down. Even when--perhaps especially when--all the equipment is working up to par, it could be that we''re just not psychologically equipped to keep up with the pace being set by the computers on our desks.
In a March 2000 essay for CIO magazine, David Shenk wrote, "The paradox, then, is that we are simultaneously entering an Age of Information and also an Age of Distraction. Life moves faster and is more electronic and thrilling; our conversations and attention spans get shorter. Our willingness to wait for things dissipates. Our patience wears thin, and our ability to think skeptically gets short-circuited by the hypnotic speed. One harmless diversion after another begins to fill up most of our waking moments... When you add all of these harmless diversions together, pretty soon they''re not harmless anymore, and they''re not diversions. They are your life. The long conversations, the peaceful moments, the poetry and prose that spark your imagination, the spiritual times of reflection: these are now the sideshows of life, the odd, unexpected flashes."
Tom Collins can relate. And maybe it''s going to take the best of our human qualities to overcome our weakest. Collins still has a Pavlovian response when his email goes off. At least he''s cut himself free from his cell phone when he goes out with his young daughter.
"I noticed the poor quality interaction, and I knew this wasn''t good for her or me. The phone went off and I was talking for five minutes. So I don''t do that anymore."