From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 23, 2017*: Making Jack dull.

A month ago I again tried, and again not very successfully, to deal with the meshing of now and then and here and there. I identified that meshing as a defining aspect of our online lives. I should admit that more than to just a certain extent this meshing goes without saying. In a variety of ways it's been an ongoing topic of the Boidem, and has shown up, or has at least been an unindicted co-conspirator, in many of these columns. The ongoing penetration of the digital into every aspect of what we do has made it consistently more difficult to distinguish, or perhaps to differentiate, between our online and offline lives, and as this process has continued the Boidem has attempted to examine its influence on us. It has tried to bring to the surface examples of how these two have become inseparable components of a totality that once seemed strange but today seems obvious. But there was one additional meshing that I purposefully didn’t mention in last month's column, and that was because it was one I wanted to deal with separately: the meshing of our work and leisure until we no longer know when is which or which is when.

Growing up I remember learning, if that’s the word, that an average or regular day was divided into three more or less equal parts – school, play (maybe that's "after school") and sleep. This division was a translation of the division of the grown-up world in which the three parts were work, home and sleep. Clearly those parts aren't really "equal", particularly since other than on Shabbat morning do I get anything close to eight hours of sleep. But the idea of clear-cut divisions is well established in western culture. Or at least it was.

Of course back in the day that was the division for the males of the species who left home in the morning to "make a living" and "put food on the table" and then came home to rest. Back then the expectation for the females of the species was to stay home … and do housework for both of those thirds. That world was clearly a man's world, and housework was only rarely regarded as "real" work.

If this is starting to seem like a late 1950s television sit-com, that's because to a large extent it is. But sit-com or not, to a large extent that was the way that our lives were reflected back to us, which caused us to view them in that way. Yes, the 50s had the beats, and the 60s saw the flowering of a counterculture. Both of these resisted this button-down reality, and both of these, and no doubt more, tried to free themselves from this pattern. Frankly, I have no idea what percentage of Americans and western Europeans actually lived their lives in such a classic sit-com manner. The "truth" may be considerably more nuanced and varied. But accurate or not, it was definitely the idealized, if not the ideal, expression of a standard life.

But something happened to the promise of breaking out of this pattern. The counterculture critique of our brown-shoed lives didn't lead to a breaking down of this division. It didn't bring us more play and free time. When it digitally erased the borders between the two it brought about a meshing of work and free time. And instead of creating more leisure we find our work days expanding into our leisure time, infringing upon it. Today, even when we're at play we're at work.

Today it's easy to feel nostalgic for the clearly delineated roles that marked our days. It may have been bland, and even regimented, but at least at the end of the work day we could return home from work and … well, if not relax, at least do things not connected to work. Today we’re told again and again that not only do we spend longer and longer hours at work, but that we also have to bring our work home so that we no longer have leisure, we no longer have any truly “free” time.

But that's a simplification. It's not really an accurate description of our lives today. True, barring legislation, our work lives seriously impinge on our leisure. But many of us who bring our work home at night also find ways to let our leisure, our free time, intrude into our work lives. What's more, most of the people I know who work long days prefer their jobs not only to being laid off, but to a job that would offer a clearer division. We continue to work not for the simplistic reason that it's our source of income. We're realizing, and all the more so with the continued march of robotization, that work is a central, a defining, aspect of our lives. As automation penetrates more and more into white collar work we realize that work is something that gives our lives meaning. But even before automation will cause us to look for meaning somewhere other than work, we face a serious problem. Rather than it being a question of our work impinging on our leisure so that we feel that we’re always busy with our work, what seems most problematic to me is that today we're often incapable of distinguishing between the two. We not only don't know when one stops and the other starts, we even seem incapable of telling the difference.

Again, there was a time not too long ago when we strove for a oneness that made us view this meshing as desirable. The move to digital meant that everything could be expressed by, though hopefully not actually reduced to, 1s and 0s so that the entire world was accessible from our screen. And then, with a broadband internet connection, we were able to work not only from home, but from anywhere. A Google Image search on working from home reminds us that we approached that possibility with more than just a bit of ambivalence. Alongside smiling faces with cups of coffee and laptops, we also see harried parents with their hands full of housework and children. The promise was there, but we still weren't convinced. And perhaps we weren't convinced of what it is we really wanted. By working from home were we giving expression to our desire for a satisfying total life experience, or were we perhaps simply saving the wasted commute time and the transportation expenses.

The idealized version can be found in an image search for working with laptop on beach. This brings up hundreds of photographs, though the vast majority of them seem to be staged stock-photos prepared for advertisements that promote the joys of a digital lifestyle. They tell us that our laptops allow us to break free from the boring and stifling office to work wherever we please. In these photos almost everybody is smiling, and nobody seems concerned about sand getting into their computers. And here as well, it's mostly a man's world, even if women also show up in the photos. Most of the men wear ties – a sure sign that they're doing serious work (even if what they're really doing is viewing porn). On the other hand, most of the women pictured as working at the beach are either in casual wear or in bikinis. They may no longer be doing housework, but their work seems less important than the men's. It may even be that their "work" is to be around the beach so that the men "working" there can ogle them.

Driving to work (as opposed to taking the train) is almost the only time I have to hear at least a bit of popular music. I suppose that I wouldn't be missing much if I didn't have that short listening time, but it's still an expression of leisure rather than of work. But the developers of self-driving cars seem to want to deprive me even of that. One of the "advantages" of these cars is that when we don't have to hold the steering wheel we'll be able to use our travel time productively. Those cars are still a bit off in the future. Instead we presently have almost ubiquitous Uber drivers. These drivers represent the reverse side of losing our leisure on the way to work. Having to always be on the lookout for an additional fare, these slaves to the "sharing" economy can hardly afford to differentiate between when they're at work and when not. Though the promise may have been more free time, we're realizing that the reality is constant work.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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