Does More Technology Make Us Less Productive?

Lynne Kiesling

I think it depends on how you measure productivity (yeah, I know that’s a bit of a copout). In a recent Wired article:

Sixty percent of workers say they always or frequently feel rushed, but those who feel extremely or very productive dropped to 51 percent from 83 percent in 1994, the research showed.

Put another way, in 1994, 82 percent said they accomplished at least half their daily planned work but that number fell to 50 percent last year. A decade ago, 40 percent of workers called themselves very or extremely successful, but that number fell to just 28 percent.

“We think we’re faster, smarter, better with all this technology at our side and in the end, we still feel rushed and our feeling of productivity is down,” said Maria Woytek, marketing communications manager for Day-Timers, a unit of ACCO Brands.

The unspoken assumption in this straightforward comparision is that “productive” is an absolute measure. But, of course, it’s not. In other words, in 1994 we accomplished 50 percent of a smaller amount, while today we accomplish 28 percent of a larger amount. Without being rigorous, I’d hazard a guess that 28 percent of what we expect to accomplish in a day today is still a heck of a lot more stuff than 50 percent of what we expected to accomplish in a day in 1994.

For some reason, perhaps because I’m feeling artsy this morning, this story reminded me of one of my favorite Stephen Crane poems:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never-“

“You lie,” he cried.
And ran on.

The process of striving for the impossible may frustrate us, but in that process we innovate and create.

One thought on “Does More Technology Make Us Less Productive?

  1. I suspect you are correct that the absolute quantity of work being produced has increased, as is measured by productivity indices. I believe some of the perception has to do with the changes in the nature and content of individual’s “work” over the time period. For example, when I began my career, many executives dictated directly to secretaries, who recorded their thoughts in shorthand and then typed their correspondence. Over time, central dictation pools, central dictation systems, personal dictation systems, direct-to-computer dictation and executive typing replaced much direct dictation, typically progressing from the bottom up in organizations. Additionally, voice message systems and e-mail have replaced much routine correspondence.

    The shift from mainframe computers and Fortran/Cobol/Basic custom programming to distributed processing and personal computers with progressively more sophisticated software has had a similar impact. We think nothing of creating a spreadsheet with structured calculations today, rather than describing the problem to a programmer who then created a custom program. The shift from DOS to Windows has had major impact on user productivity.

    Corporations were slow to begin realizing the benefits of technology, but are now aggressively pursuing them, reducing staffing relative to business volume. The risk in all of this, in my opinion, is that many knowledge employees today are spending so much of their day “doing” that they spend relatively little time “thinking” about what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. This results in a loss of creativity which will ultimately come back to bite us.

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