As the pandemic coolly lingers on, many new thoughts have been inching towards the forefront of my mind. But lately, one thing, in particular, has occupied many of my wandering thoughts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the object of these thoughts has, quite literally, stared me in the face for the majority of my waking hours these past few months. If you’re unsure as to where I’m going with this, I’m referring to the two screens—my laptop and phone—that have acted as constant companions—admittedly for many years, but increasingly so since last March.
Like many of us, I use technology constantly: online shopping, Zoom meetings, social media, Google docs, online banking, etc. The fact is, with all of this technology, our lives now have the potential to become drastically more efficient when compared to a century ago, or even just 20 years ago. Technology drives efficiency. And technology has become ubiquitous with life in industrialized countries with global economies. The fact that my own grandmother, at the age of 88, owns and enthusiastically uses an iPad is perhaps enough of an argument for its ubiquitousness. Just imagine the multitude of businesses that rely heavily on digital technology just to function each day; it’s almost difficult to imagine one that doesn’t. Yet recently, my father discovered and eagerly shared with me a stash of analogue spreadsheets that he used to create for keeping track of inventory and sales when he worked for an auto-parts store back in the ‘80s—everything was done by hand with paper and pencil, and that was less than 40 years ago. As an English Major, even the thought of writing a 3000-word essay by hand is almost laughable, yet this was the norm just a few years ago.
The transition into a digital world has allowed so many aspects of our lives, like creating spreadsheets and typing essays, to be done at an alarmingly fast rate. And this increasing efficiency is only accelerating as the years go by. For instance, the COVID-19 vaccine was developed in less than one year, compared to the four years that the mumps vaccine took to develop, which was, prior to COVID-19, the fastest vaccine ever developed.
Moreover, it seems like every new app and gadget that comes out is designed, in some way or another, to make our lives more efficient—to get things done more quickly and easily. Of course, this all sounds great—why would you want to spend hours of time and large amounts of effort doing things that can be done quickly and almost effortlessly? Yet, where the logic ceases to make sense is in the fact that, despite these monumental leaps in technology, it seems that the structure of our lives has not altered to nearly the same extent. In general, we still live to work—the idea of a 40-hour work week remains the norm with two days per week (if we’re lucky) spent not at work. But even these two days seem to incessantly slip through our fingers as we often spend them catching up on chores, homework, errands, and whatever else we didn’t manage to get done during the week.
These thoughts prompted me to ask, what exactly is the point of all this efficiency? What is the end goal of doing things more quickly and easily? The answer I landed on was that increasing our efficiency in certain areas of our lives allows us to spend more time doing the things we really want to do—increased efficiency equals increased leisure time. But if that’s true, and I think many would agree that it is, why is that, for the most part, simply not our reality? Where do all these minutes or hours that we save, thanks to technology, disappear to?
In order to explore some answers to these questions, I reached out to Dr. Dan Ryder, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Dr. Karl Pinno, Lecturer in Economics.
Jayme: So Dan, what exactly is the point of all this efficiency? Am I wrong in my assumption that the goal of efficiency is more leisure time?
Dr. Ryder: “Firstly, it’s important to ask ourselves, have the technological advances really made us more efficient? Of course, in some ways they have. We used to have to phone people, now we can email, text, or private message. Normally this means we get an answer more quickly and spend fewer minutes absorbing it.
On the other hand, though, there are ways in which we’ve become less efficient, too. What I have in mind is the sort of thing that Cal Newport talks about in his book Deep Work. We’re constantly distracted: with all our incoming messages, notifications, and instant availability of information, we’re pulled in so many directions at once. We’re conditioned to keep checking our phone or notifications, and to reply to inquiries ‘efficiently.’ We multitask and think we’re getting lots done, but this often means we’re actually working more slowly and getting less done. Plus, the work we’re doing is superficial. We don’t take the time to immerse ourselves in “deep work”— when we can focus, without distractions, on a difficult but meaningful task, something that takes time and effort to master or understand. The biggest accomplishments almost all come from “deep work,” and if we’re not doing it, we’re actually getting a lot less done, at least when measured by what’s important: impact.
The same problems infect our leisure time, too. Instead of engaging in undistracted, rewarding, deep leisure, we ‘doomscroll.’ What a waste! Maybe the real problem that needs solving is this neglect of deep engagement.”
Jayme: That’s fascinating and probably accurate. But let’s say I’m right that we’re more efficient, yet we’re still working the same amount, because for some people this must be the case.
DR: “Absolutely. One possible explanation is that our need to keep-up-with-the-Joneses is cancelling out the potential gains in leisure time. As our work becomes more efficient, we simply do more work. Competition pushes us to use (or overuse!) our time in doing work.
For example, if we were to reduce the official work week, maybe most people would still devote the same number of hours to work, falling in line with their basic desires. Kind of a depressing picture. To fix it, there’d have to be a radical shift in what we want for ourselves.
There’s a way out for some people, the ones who really love their work. They love it so much that if they had more leisure time, they’d devote it to their work. Depending on how common this is, these people may be the leading edge which drives the competition in the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses scenario just described.”
Jayme: Karl, from an economics standpoint, what are your thoughts on this apparent battle between work and leisure?
Dr. Pinno: “As consumers, we are forced to make choices on what we spend our money on and where we allocate our time because we have both money and time in limited amounts. Leisure can be thought of as just another good (like a new outfit or a television set) that is purchased by the income we forgo by not working.
Yet, as we earn more, there are two effects that run in opposite directions to each other with regards to how much we work. The first is called the ‘income effect’: higher wages make me wealthier and make me want to consume more leisure as a result. The second is called the ‘substitution effect’: higher wages make the cost of leisure more expensive and incentivizes consumers to move away from leisure into working more.
Ultimately, these choices—how much we work vs. how much leisure time we take—come down to individual and societal values that are reflected in the political processes that ultimately shape the institutions that underpin our society. I believe society, as it exists today, is not sustainable and that we have to do a better job of sharing prosperity going forward. Otherwise, we risk descending into fascism or anarchy. This is the lesson of history from my perspective—the one I teach every year in my History of Economic Thought course. Where we go from here depends on our collective values and the choices that stem from them. There is no predetermined outcome and different countries will make different choices just as they always have.”
What strikes me most after reflecting on these conversations with Dan and Karl is the idea that our individual values and choices are what can ultimately determine the structure of our lives. This might sound obvious, but I believe that there is a majority of people who subconsciously believe that the norms of society are somehow innate—that they can’t be altered. However, as Karl notes, “there is no predetermined outcome.”
In this day and age, I think it is important that before we accept the norms of society—the 40-hour work week, for example—we stop to ask ourselves important questions: what kind of a life do I want to live? How much money does that lifestyle require? And ultimately, how can I uniquely structure my life to suit these desires?