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The net as a time sink

March 13, 2008

birds in flight

It’s well known that new communications technologies diffuse in different ways and have different impacts on society compared with non-network innovations (because each new adoption makes them still more useful to existing adopters – see Everett RogersDiffusion of Innovations for more on this). An article by Bobbie Johnson in today’s Technology Guardian got me thinking about another unique characteristic of network technologies: they are not labour-saving in the straightforward way that earlier technical innovations were.

“Take email, instant messaging and SMS,” writes Johnson.

It’s faster and easier than ever before, but it doesn’t reduce the workload because we simply spend more time doing it (Britons sent more than 50bn texts in 2007, for example – as many each week as they did in the whole of 1999). This reverses previous technological trends: just because the laundry process was now 10 times faster, we didn’t suddenly begin washing 10 times as many clothes. (The internet is the ultimate labour-creating device, Guardian Unlimited, 13/03/08)

Every time we need to find something out or exchange a thought, not only can we do so straightaway, but our attention will be caught by a dozen other things which we hadn’t until then been aware of needing to know or share. By giving us almost unlimited access to information and enabling us to communicate so easily, the net plugs into two of our most basic instincts as a species – to learn and to talk to each other – with the result that we spend more and more of our time doing these things.

This is why knowledge workers find themselves working harder and harder the more they embrace information technologies which originally promised to make their lives easier. As Johnson says,

It’s not for nothing that the net is characterised as a time sink, because wherever it carves out efficiencies, it usually manages to create extra work too.

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