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Creeping Connectivity: Work and Life in a Hyper-Connected World

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s 10:30 PM on a Sunday night. I’ve finished folding our laundry and just started the dishwasher. As on most Sundays, S and I just finished watching The Walking Dead. Although while he was fully focused on the plight of the characters, I did what I normally do: half listened while I scanned work emails and went over my meeting schedule for Monday.

The idea of a standard workday began to take root during the American Industrial Revolution, when more people moved away from agricultural jobs and looked to factories for employment. While we might complain of having had a “long” day today, early factory workers had workdays that ranged anywhere between 10 – 16 hours six days a week. This practice persisted into the early 20th-century; workdays varied across industries and were set by the employer until the eight-hour-day was won by different union groups for their trades. Their efforts were aided by the dire state of the country during the Great Depression: In 1933 in an effort to jump start the economy, FDR sought the means to regulate industry and passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. Believing that unchecked competition had helped create conditions that led to the Great Depression, Roosevelt sought limited regulation, support for trade groups, and worker’s rights (shorter working hours, better working conditions, minimum pay rates, etc.) He believed that these items would help pull the country out of the downward slide that threatened to persist indefinitely if left unchecked.

This idea of 40 hours distributed over five days—with a fixed starting and stopping time—became a standard around which we organized our lives. For years, millions of Americans, got up in the morning and traveled to their workplace for a stretch of eight or nine hours and then traveled home. Work activities occupied a clearly separate sphere from home and leisure activities. However, in recent years, as the workforce and its needs have changed:

  • There are more women in the workforce.
  • There are more single parents and dual-earners in the workforce.
  • A greater number of Americans are caring for older loved ones.

As work and home have begun to overlap, there has been an increasing need for flexibility, which has changed the standard of an eight hour day. People no longer need to travel to an office; now they can work from home—or while on vacation or in between parent-teacher meetings or school play intermissions. Technology, of course, has been viewed as a means of facilitating this need. With access to email on-the-go and the means to take conference calls and share documents, the luxury of “working from home” allows workers to better manage their time on their own terms to a certain degree.

This freedom is also significant to Millennials, who are sitting at the crux of a cultural shift regarding creativity. There have never been more opportunities to pursue creative goals and collaborate with a diverse spectrum of people than there is today. Between online research tools, software, and social networking platforms, creative pursuits are a mainstay of our identities rather than a peripheral interest. Flexible work arrangements encourage these activities by allowing individuals the means to work from anywhere, which theoretically allows them to better juggle personal pursuits and needs while performing the tasks tied to their jobs.

The shift to this model has been gradual and not without its challengers. Critics often cite reduced face-to-face contact as a barrier to open communication and collaboration and question the truth behind claims of increased productivity. But as we adopt and grow more comfortable with the technology that allow us to connect with one another—whether that’s email or collaborative software—the new standard increasingly breaks the mold of the eight hour day.

With the freedom to work from anywhere comes the anxiety of always needing to seem as though we are working. So we jump when our phones buzz to indicate an incoming email or we “check-in” on our day off under the pretense of not falling behind when what we’re actually concerned about is not appearing to work. The impact here is that we’re drawn increasingly into work and spend less of our time physically interacting with others; we may spend less of our time with each other actually speaking with each other. Work encroaches on the spaces that were formerly private and personal. I don’t think I’m alone in having had my laptop open while sitting on the couch—a space that lends itself to more open interaction. Some people may bring work to the dinner table or even to the bedroom. Slowly but surely work has begun to follow us everywhere. If left unchecked, this can negatively impact our relationships; and here again we turn to technology to help mediate. While we’re always “on,” we’re also plugged into social networking platforms and instant messaging channels that allow us to communicate with loved ones and “check-in” in reverse: during our workday (and sometimes from different rooms in our home).

Work-life balance seems increasingly to be an antiquated idea. Instead, we’re looking at a seamless merger of work and life. Are you finding that 9-to-5 workday bleeds beyond eight hours? How are you finding balance when the new normal seems to be integration?

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. k banco 8:22 am 03/25/2014

    You can make it work. Almost anything you read in a work email is useless. Don’t read them and don’t send them. Find things you really want to do outside of work so that at the end of the day you are stressed out about not leaving work yet so you feel compelled to leave.

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  2. 2. mikeldelgado 9:13 am 03/25/2014

    I turn my computer off at around 7 PM every night. And I don’t have a smart phone. The emails can wait.

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  3. 3. Kbirth 9:26 am 03/25/2014

    The danger of infinite flexibility is that our bodies are not infinitely flexible. We are diurnal mammals with pronounced circadian rhythms. There is a growing body of evidence that chronic sleep loss causes various types of cognitive impairment and even brain damage. One of the notable symptoms of chronic sleep loss is a diminished capacity to evaluate risk. Labor statistics indicate that the most sleep deprived set of occupations are in the financial sector. Our recent recession was generated by an inability of those working in the financial sector to evaluate risk. We should feel warned.

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  4. 4. tuned 10:55 am 03/25/2014

    I get a security warning for this page. Something about .

    I don’t mind your connectivity.
    It’s privacy invasion that infuriates me, including data mining without my specific permission.

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  5. 5. hkraznodar 4:14 pm 03/27/2014

    There seems to be a lot of hype over this but a very tiny percentage of the population is in an employment situation where it is relevant. You cannot manufacture from home (yet). You cannot work a grocery store, restaurant or drive a truck from home. You cannot plow or harvest a field from home. You cannot do surgery or put out a fire from home. In ten years this may be a real issue for more than a minority. Right now it isn’t

    I know several thousand people and only the one graphic artist and one of the administrative assistants can work from home. The admin assistant is paid hourly so when she works from home it is tracked for her paycheck. The graphic artist is on salary and I don’t know if her work is tracked at all.

    Like I said, eventually this may matter to more than a minority but just under half of Americans still only have broadband internet access at work, the library or school. Rural and low income neighborhoods rarely have high saturation of broadband access.

    Just because the upper middle class and rich find it an issue doesn’t mean anyone else can relate.

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  6. 6. RobFromLoveland 5:09 am 03/28/2014

    The causes underlying this phenomenon are the shortage of any jobs other than low-paying entry-level, the shift away from an assumption that employment is long-term or permanent, and the increasing business emphasis on getting more done with fewer employees. People ‘check in’ because they are in fear of losing the job, not because they feel it is necessary or even useful.

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  7. 7. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 2:05 pm 03/28/2014

    KBirth, I think more and more people are coming to that realization given the rising tide of marketing that extolls people to “just unplug.” However, the FOMO phenomenon often triggers a counter response to that messaging, and I think is starting to bleed into work. Some people have no trouble establishing boundaries, but others are incapable of separating the two, and the result can be as detrimental as you point out.

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  8. 8. Richard Salisbury 2:57 am 03/30/2014

    I agree with KBirth especially, & w/ all or most of the other comments so far. While I believe that the conflict between work and play goes away if you are doing what you love–then work is mostly play–neither, together or separately, exhausts what it is to be human. (I finally found this fortunate conjunction in my third career, from which I just retired, as a marriage and family therapist.)
    The hardest work for any human, which can also be the most fun (but rarely is I suspect), is to create and maintain good relationships with other people. TV, computer/video games, & social media provide at best phony substitutes for this. Consider the plain meaning of “virtual reality”; it ain’t reality, it’s virtual.
    Besides, how many people today get to do what they love? Or even get to do meaningful work (other than, in poor countries, what’s required for sheer survival)? Or, in rich countries, get to work at all (and the safety net for those–at least in the U.S.–is rapidly being torn apart)?
    When I was a freshman at Stanford, nearly 55 years ago, I was more optimistic than now–leaving aside the now-well-known coming catastrophe of global warming, and the continuing and probably increasing risk of nuclear war. When the computer revolution wasn’t even a blip on the horizon for most of us, including me, I naively believed, like many I suspect, that “industrialization” would fulfill its potential to help feed us all; to free us from the necessity for long hours at labor, back-breaking work, sheer drudgery, or even literal slavery; and to make it possible through greater leisure to explore and enact our highest individual and collective potentials.
    What I understand now is that too much (not all) of what I then thought of as progress was and is driven by two things: 1) An increasing imbalance, within European Civilization over the last 500-600 years (and now almost everywhere in the world) between the mind or intellect and all other human faculties. 2) Those perennial favorites of almost all leaders, greed and the lust for power. And maybe, overall, just our all-too-human hubris.
    I’ve gone well beyond the issue that elicited my brain dump. To bring it back home, I think this issue and related ones are at root economic. That is, those who value the spiritually-least-important things in human life, chiefly money and winning, are running the show, and hoodwinking or compelling the rest of us to work in ways that benefit them but are more and more detrimental to the rest of us. Thus, increasingly rapid technical progress: not all bad, but driven too much by the amoral forces of mere curiosity or “knowledge for its own sake,” without regard to the evil uses to which this knowledge may be put, and too often is; and even more by the immorality of innovation for the sake of wealth. Who thinks or speaks about the possible downside of an innovation when they stand to make money from it? This economic machinery, out of control and spinning faster and faster, is chewing up more and more people (and the rest of the planet) at an ever increasing rate.
    Forgive my diatribe. These notions have been much on my mind lately. I’ll end by recommending a book I just read: “Time Wars” (1987) by Jeremy Rifkin: very prescient.

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