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

May 20, 1998*You call this work?

For quite a while I worked with my back to a wall, my computer screen visible only to myself or to whoever walked around to "my" side of the desk and viewed it with me. Though I can't say that I have something to hide, I have to admit that I enjoyed this added measure of privacy. Somehow I don't' really love the idea of having my screen available for the viewing pleasure of everyone who passes by.

Should I be concerned with privacy? Nobody is lurking over my shoulder, perhaps preparing to copy my work or steal my ideas. That might be a compliment, but, in my case at least, it's not happening. Much as I might want to, I have no reason to fear that I have to protect my original work.

But it is a question of what might be called "work habits", and the way those work habits have changed in the digital era. Without implying any comparison, perhaps a (probably apocryphal) story about Albert Einstein illustrates the point:

Much of our work today is "thinking work", and, try and we may, it just doesn't fit the traditional stereotypes of "industrial labor". We no longer identify the work place as the shop floor, or as being stationed in front of a machine. We're no longer required to sweat or to wrinkle our brows in external expressions of effort and concentration in order to "look" as though we're busy.

But perhaps we still do. I had a game of Reversi (Othello) on my first computer (a Mac SE). The game had a wonderful screen called "quick, the boss is coming". Choosing that option from the menus made the game disappear, showing what looked like an Excel spreadsheet in its stead. This of course was before multi-tasking, when solutions of this sort might have been useful. Today I can keep a real spreadsheet open for just the same purpose and get to it with one click.

So I'm not really concerned here with questions of privacy, or someone looking over my shoulder, but of what is normally considered productive work. Or perhaps better put, I'm interested in how the definition of productive work changes as the internet becomes more and more a central part of our daily work schedule.

I receive about 200 e-mail messages a week. Most of these are not, of course, personal messages, but postings to lists I subscribe to. Almost all of these lists, and my reading of them, are related to my work, and I don't have qualms about reading them on "company time". But at the very least this can be extremely time consuming. Just trying to keep up with the threads of an interesting discussion can keep me from doing other work that I'm "expected" to do. And if I want to keep abreast of new sites that are constantly appearing in cyberspace, or check out new technologies (almost always related to "playing around", but just maybe applicable to education and thus "relevant" to my work) I'm inevitably devoting less time to other tasks.

But this leads us back to Einstein. I'm (still) not about to compare his work to mine, but work that demands thinking is work that can't be measured by traditional standards of production. One day I can write something that hardly needs any editing, is clear and complete, and for the next two days I can stare at the computer screen without any clear idea of how to accomplish what I set out to do. On days like the latter perhaps it's more productive to surf sites than to simply sit in front of a blank screen. Someone glancing over my shoulder on days such as these would be right to scratch his/her head and wonder if I was really working. But a good case could be made that I had been busy assimilating information so that later I'd be able to put it to productive use.

But hey! It's May, 1998 already! Is there anyone still out there who's really worried about workers at computer-based jobs misusing their computers on company time to surf the web and in general "waste" time? I mean, I originally made a note to myself to write about this topic about a year and a half ago, but decided that it had become passe and that there was no longer any reason to write it. But apparently I was wrong - it's still a hot topic. At least I can write that in the last two months I've added three more articles on the subject to the file I have of them that had been laying dormant for a while.

If it is, once again, a hot topic, I'd like to know why. Have statistics on "company time surfing" become so high that something has to be done about it? Have CEOs suddenly discovered the internet and become fearful of its capabilities? And maybe, in the spirit of the cartoon on this page, companies have discovered that computers haven't boosted productivity, and it's a case of blame the worker who must be misusing the tool that has been put at his/her disposal. After all, the truth is that those of us who have internet access at the workplace often use it for purposes which aren't directly or distinctly related to our work. But we hope that we work for people who understand that only through allowing a bit (or more) of leeway are we able to come up with creative or original solutions, find relevant examples to learn from, be in contact with useful information. When immediate and traditional productivity is the bottom line, I doubt that internet access can be justified as being of much use. But we can hope that internet access helps to expand and redefine the boundaries of productivity.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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