Doing routine work through technological means seems to let more tasks be added to the load. Rather than enjoying more leisure, people do more work.
If we cast our minds back only a few years, most of us can recall many cases of technical advances which have affected our own lives. Two personal examples which are still vivid in my memory concern the way we operated in my early days at the Cambridge University Careers Service. We sent details of employment opportunities to those using our service in the form of duplicated documents. The information — masses of it — was copied using what now seem primitive machines. The process was fairly slow, and we had to employ special staff to carry it out.
My other memory concerns the production of statistical information for our annual reports about the types of employment to which our graduates went. We felt very modern because one of my colleagues worked out the statistical information with the use of a slide rule.
Quite soon we were able to replace the tedium of that process by using a computer. Similarly, we were soon able to use far more modern machines to carry out the copying. And of course, it was not long before we did not need to copy the material at all, because all our students were on email.
These are personal, fairly trivial, memories, but they are a reflection of something much more fundamental. Modern technology has taken much of the tedium out of routine tasks, and has made it possible for people to spend far less time on them than was the case relatively recently — certainly in my adult lifetime.
As I think about this I find myself asking some challenging questions. The first, fundamental, question is: what have people done with the time that, through modern technology, they are able to save? In principle, it seems to me, the answer ought to be that they enjoy more leisure. Let the machines do the routine work, use your brains, and skills, and judgment to do the work that requires those qualities, and use the time saved to make life more pleasant.
In practice, I do not think that this is what has actually happened. Having the routine work carried out by technological means seems in reality simply to let more tasks be added to the load; rather than enjoying more leisure, people do ever more work.
I heard an example of this recently when I was told about two senior medical consultants who have to travel each day from one hospital to another, half an hour away, where they also hold senior positions. Because there is much work to be done in both places, they do not have time to pause for lunch; what should be the lunch break is devoted to travel.
I do not think that this experience is unusual. More and more people seem to have to sacrifice meal times in order to fit in more work. More and more people, too, find that their work intrudes not just on the whole of the working day, but also on their holidays. Modern technology enables them to keep in constant touch with the workplace. Work becomes an obsession — and many employers encourage that.
To my mind, this makes no sense at all. In the long term, it is bound to have a deleterious effect on health. By any rational standard, it is surely a misuse of technological developments. Being able to avoid dull routine tasks by using modern technology clearly makes eminent sense. It provides the means to improve the quality of life by removing much of the drudgery and concentrating on the more stimulating aspects of work.
Reacting to that possibility by simply taking on more work — and ignoring the opportunity to devote more time to enjoying life — surely makes no sense at all. It adds to pressure, rather than reducing it. It turns work into a grim obsession rather than a pleasurable opportunity.
I have no doubt that many people will dismiss these opinions as the fanciful views of someone who simply does not understand what real life is like. That sort of reaction leaves me totally unconvinced. If it is at all possible, the work-life balance should be just that — a balance. The great thing about modern technology is that it has made the achievement of that balance easier. Failure to approach work in the modern world by recognising this fact and benefiting from it is precisely that: it is a serious failure. Technology should be our servant. It should not be allowed to become our master.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org