Is there any way out? Time to take a step back. Photo: Getty
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The dark side of digital work: how technology is making us less productive

The more time and effort we spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work.

Digital technology has certainly delivered for business, leading to multiplying uses and channels, spiralling across the world of work. But the pace and scope of the transformation has been far greater than we could have imagined, and is beginning to push up against our human abilities to cope.

From a series of studies we’ve built up evidence of a fast-emerging “dark side” of IT:  technology stress, technology overload, technology addiction and IT misuse in the workplace. The very qualities that make IT useful – dependability, convenience, ease of use and quick processing – may also be harming productivity and people’s well-being.

“Technostress” comes from our feeling forced to multitask rapidly over streams of information from different devices, having to constantly learn how to use ever-changing IT, and the sense of being tied to our devices with no real divide between work and home. A survey of 600 computer-using professionals, for example, found that 73 per cent worried that not being constantly connected to their workplaces would place them at a professional disadvantage. Many employees confessed to feeling “addicted” – spending an average of 23 minutes each day responding to work emails when at home, and feeling compelled to stay in touch and working while on their commute, on weekends and even on holidays. Another aspect of the dark side is that employees can knowingly – or unknowingly – misuse their firm’s IT resources and compromise IT security. It’s very difficult to stop an employee who has authorised access to a system obtaining confidential company information and selling it to outsiders, naively using unlicensed software or opening up an email with a virus.

The more time and effort employees spend keeping on top of ever-changing applications and struggling to swim through gluts of information, the less productive they are at work. They’re more likely to be hasty and rushed in how they deal with information, with less time for thoughtful analysis, thinking through issues and problems, which makes it more likely people will just stick to routines and what they know. Technostress also affects relationships with people having less time generally for clients, partners and colleagues, too distracted by the pull of the screens. Excessive use of IT can harm the wellbeing of both individuals and the organisations. We found instances where employees resigned because they found it too stressful to cope with the learning required to use constantly changing computer applications.

Is there any way out? Perhaps to begin with, employers and organisations just need to step back and assess these potential risks from digitisation, and think more in terms of a “mindful” use of IT, what’s happening, how’s it affecting people and how can there be more of a balance? Organisations have traditionally taken a technical approach, helping their employees use IT “better” or “more” with technical “training” material or sessions.  What’s needed is a set of more wide-ranging and integrated policies developed with the participation of senior leaders from both IT and non-IT functions. For sure they should include technical approaches like dashboards for employees to track and limit their IT us, or auto-security measures such as blocking questionable email attachments. But more importantly they should include non-technical actions such on digital mindfulness such as programmes for educating employees about responsible IT use, making them aware about potential dark side effects, encouraging work-life balance and providing resources and support for dealing with things like technostress.

Monideepa Tarafdar, Professor of Information Systems and Co-Director of the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre, Lancaster University Management School, www.lancaster.ac.uk/lums. “The Dark Side of Information Technology”, co-authored with John D’Arcy (University of Delaware), Ofir Turel (California State University) and Ashish Gupta (University of Tennessee) was published in Sloan Management Review, Winter 2015.

 

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.