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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2017 is the year we realise we've been doing the Internet wrong

Networks can distribute power or they can centralise it.

A couple of years ago I visited Manchester tech start up Reason Digital. They were developing an app to help keep sex workers safe. The nature of sex work means workers are often vulnerable to crime, crimes which can be particularly difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and subject to interference.

Reason Digital thought if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack – that would help sex workers protect themselves.

So, of course, they created an app which tracked the location and habits of all sex workers in Manchester in a central database and sent out alerts based on where they were and what they were doing, right?

Did they hell.

They knew a real-time centralised, location database would immediately be a target for the very people they wanted to help protect sex workers from. Moreover, they wanted their app to empower sex workers, to put them in control. And they knew that sex workers would be reluctant to hand over any part of their hard fought privacy.

So the Reason Digital app kept the location and other data on the sex workers’ smart phone and let it decide which alerts were relevant and what information to share.

That is the kind of distributed, autonomous app putting people in control we just don’t see on the Net.  No, all the apps that improve our lives – from Facebook to Uber to match.com – cull the intelligence and data from the user and stick it in the vaults of a company or, occasionally, a government.

Thankfully, the majority of us are nowhere near as vulnerable as the majority of sex workers – to physical crime at least.

But we are increasingly vulnerable to cybercrime, a vulnerability which will increase exponentially once everything is connected to the Internet of Things.

And we are vulnerable to the exploitation of our data, whether through data mining or algorithmic determinism. Google’s search engine can be “gamed” by extremists, used to strengthen hatred and spread stereotypes. I have also been told one major dating site optimises it matchmaking algorithm for short term relationships – it means more return business. And Uber have admitted it knows you’re likely to pay more for a ride if your battery is low – which it also knows. Our data is what drives services and profits on the Net - but we’re unable to reap the rewards of the value we create.

That’s why 2017 will be the year we realise we got the Net wrong.

Not the underlying internet, designed by the public and third sectors in the seventies to be as distributed and autonomous as possible.

Or even the World Wide Web, invented in the nineties by the public and private sectors, again without central control.

But the apps developed in the last couple of decades to use the infrastructure of the internet to deliver services.

Networks can distribute power – like the electricity power grid –  or they can centralise it – like old boys networks.

Increasingly, I fear the Net is doing the latter.  And for three main reasons.

Firstly, a technical legacy of the early internet: in the days of slow broadband and unreliable devices it made sense to transmit as little as possible and control your user experience by centralising it. That problem is by and large history, but the centralisation remains.

Secondly these apps were mainly developed by a small group of privileged people – white, male, relatively well-off engineers. That’s why, for example, the biggest campaign of the early  internet pioneers was against porn filtering. Yes, for many years the most inspirational internet civil rights struggle was for rich western men to have absolutely untrammelled access to porn. So often I was the only woman at the conference table as this issue was raised again and again, thinking ‘is this really the biggest issue the tech community faces’?

But there is a seam of libertarianism in technology which sees it as above and beyond the state in general and regulation in particular. Even as a replacement for it. Who needs a public sector if you have dual core processing?  When tech was the poor relation in the global economy that could be interesting and disruptive. Now tech is the global economy, it is self-serving.

And thirdly these apps were developed in a time of neoliberal consensus. The state was beaten and bowed, shrunk to its role of uprooting barriers and getting out of the way of the brilliant, innovative, invisible hand of the private sector.  When I was at Ofcom in the 2000s we strove valiantly, day and night, to avoid any regulation of the internet, even where that included consumer rights and fairer power distribution.

As a consequence now the Net is distributing power but to the wrong people.

  • It’s not empowering the poor and dispossessed but the rich and self-possessed.
  • It’s not empowering sex workers in Manchester but criminal cartels in China.
  • It’s not empowering the  cabbie in Coventry but the $62Billion Uber everywhere.
  • It’s not empowering the plucky little startup in rural Hexhamshire but the global enterprise headquartered in Bermuda.
  • It’s not empowering the Nigerian market woman with a yam to sell but the Wall Street stockbroker with your data to market.
  • It’s not empowering the Iranian dissident but the Russian state.

That’s a betrayal of the power and original purpose of the net: for greater human empowerment.

To be sure some of that is happening. The Arab Spring, for example  Campaigns for the tampon tax and Black Lives Matter are enhanced by the web. Apps such as Pol.is and MassLBP look to make 

digital democracy work. Institutes like Newcastle’s Digital Civics Institute are working at systems to enable real democratic collaboration. Groups and enterprises such as Medical Confidential, MySociety, Cap Collectif and Delib try to deliver control back to the citizen consumer. European research project d-cent has helped develop tools that can make deliberative democracy work.

But against that we have the rapacious data centralisation of big companies and, at times, the state.

What we need is a government that is capable of leading and inspiring the tech sector to empower citizens and consumers. Ignoring the libertarian technocrats who say it’s for them to determine how tech power is distributed and remembering that the white heat of technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way round.  This government has neither the capacity nor the will to take on that mission. As part of our review of industrial strategy, Labour will be examining ways in which tech can be empowered to deliver the economy we want, and people empowered to make the best use of it.

Tech and politics are the twin drivers of progress, and I’m lucky enough to have worked in both. If there is one thing we have seen it is that as people become richer they have fewer children, more education and a greater sense of privacy and autonomy.  2017 is the year to start giving back to the people the data and control they should never have lost.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.