In the Stream of Notifications
by Romuald Demidenko
All the Time
If you type the word ‘work’ into Google, you will get about 145 million search results. Perhaps most of them refer to just outdated job offers, contain sample CVs or letters of application. Apart from advertisements, however, one would also find a list of articles with recurring titles such as: “10 Tips to Be More Effective at Work”, “Ten Steps to Greater Productivity at Work” and others which address the questions of effective time management, delegating tasks, coping with stress and relaxation techniques.
Among the handbooks one would also come across reports on, for example, average weekly working hours in individual countries. According to the data, the front runner for lowest weekly work hours is the Netherlands – 29 hours, followed by Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany. The most hard-working nations are Poles, the Portuguese, Slovaks and Hungarians, who spend up to 40 hours in the office (1). The data does not convey, however, how much we really work. It is hard to measure the time spent with the various electronic devices which are always kept close at hand. Even though we might not be quite conscious of it, we habitually reach for the mobile phone. We check notifications and messages from friends, but also work-related ones or rather the ones that help us organise our work better. It only seems natural to check our email accounts once we have left our workplace to have a sense of full control over the projects we are involved in or just out of curiosity. Does it mean we are willing to work non-stop? We can imagine taking a break from technology for a few days, but a complete separation could result in losing touch with some friends and probably also losing one’s job. We delegate tasks to applications, which are increasingly better suited to our needs and which only require regular updating.
In order to minimise cost, many companies and institutions recoil from retaining too many job positions and instead outsource their work. On the other hand, there is no longer a need to commit oneself to one specific employer or workplace and therefore more flexible forms of employment are becoming increasingly popular. Many people deliberately free themselves from sitting at a desk for eight or even twelve hours a day. Working outside the office helps to mitigate the negative impact of overwork and burnout and hence is more and more often used by corporations and institutions in order to motivate their employees. In recent years new solutions have been implemented that enable the improvement of the work-life balance. One of these solutions was to reduce the number of hours spent in the office ‘after office hours’ or even a ban on checking work emails. And yet the string of notifications displayed by the portable devices we use provokes us to incessantly activate ourselves. We are used to living in automated reality to such an extent that we only realise it once we discover we have left our mobile phone or charger at home. Network and application access remove the necessity of physical contact with others but also generate new patterns of behaviour and habits, which result in being constantly on standby till late at night or even longer (2).
Until recently, many people nostalgically recalled the sound that signified one was connecting to a landline network. The internet used to be associated mostly with leisure time and recreation and using it was largely anonymous. Today, in view of greater exposure additionally generated by social media, the distinction between being online and offline is becoming increasingly vague, which significantly alters the way people perceive the surrounding reality and accompanying relations between the users (3). Staying in touch with others is done by means of applications, which is oriented toward interaction and immediate exchange. We hardly ever stop to think about the data we generate in this way: where such ‘exchanges’ end up and to what extent they still belong to us. Once we create them, they are automatically transferred to our devices (4). We are continuously encouraged to participate in the events that take place around us, or express opinions on the goods we might have come across in real life. If we use those applications, it is as if our presence is measured by the frequency of updates and interactions. Our activity is more conspicuous and is subject to standardization (5).
Regardless of Where We Are
One of the first portable devices was Dynabook. Despite its considerable weight it had a flat keyboard integrated with a screen, which made it resemble a contemporary smartphone more than its successors. The next stages in the evolution brought a series of computers which had increasingly greater storage capacity and at the same time progressively more convenient. They gained popularity and gradually supplanting traditional computers. Due to high demand they became increasingly accessible, while longer battery life made it possible to use them while travelling.
Since the 1970s corporations started to implement new solutions aimed at minimising costs and maximising profits. Working remotely without having to come into the office and participate in meetings was supposed, on the one hand, to enable employees to raise their effectiveness; and on the other help companies save money through reducing the cost of work. This was designed ultimately, to assist companies in maximing their profits. Since then, the number of freelance workers began to grow. However, it was the development of the internet in recent years that brought the greatest change in teleworking opportunities. Today in the USA already ⅓ of the population works remotely, and according to predictions by 2020 as much as 40% of American labour force will consist of digital nomads or workers independent of a specific place. Self-employment rates will increase and at the same time it will be harder to find a full-time job. As a result, there will be more emphasis on co-operation with talented teleworkers (6).
Move your finger across the screen,
new messages will be displayed
The way we work has also influenced the functionality of working space. Today in the case of most companies an office serves representation purposes, especially when it comes to global corporations with branches in many locations. Most people go to work at a specific time, although this does not seem necessary in the context of work aided by new technologies. As a result of abandoning stationary methods of organisation, contemporary offices no longer look like sterile cubes in beige and are more multifunctional. They have been transformed into spacious interiors without walls, which enhance creativity and allow employees to work in a relaxed atmosphere, encouraging them to stay longer.
After a Time
More and more people, out of necessity or of their own will choose to work from home or combine teleworking with attending meetings. It is precisely these transitional forms that are believed to be most favoured by workers. If we do not feel like working at home, we can work in one of the local cafés or rent a desk for a few hours, coffee included. The decision to take up teleworking is also supposed to have a positive impact on natural environment thanks to, for example, reducing fuel consumption or supporting local start-ups. But it is not always a result of freelance workers‘ decision. In fact, it was the 1990s when more forms of contingent work emerged and later a recession as a result of the latest financial crisis, that forced a change, thanks to which a permanent job is no longer a standard model. More and more people decide to be self-employed, either in fear of or because of a job loss (7).
Having a set of portable devices means we can easily finish our tasks regardless of where we are. By putting them into our pocket and leaving the desk we change only our working environment. It is enough to move your finger across the screen and new messages will be displayed. Institutions and organisations no longer have to keep stationary workplaces. Workers, on the other hand, can say farewell to the trouble of working for only one employer in a specific place. We can work while travelling and devote the remaining time to meetings.
We put aside our mobile phones for a while with a feeling that we can break away from notifications and focus on work or relax. And should our relaxation be replaced by a series of applications allowing us to work non-stop for several dozen hours, will new forms of recreation emerge (8)? Already LCD screens are designed in such a way as not to cause eye strain and at the same time keep our eyes focused for a longer while. Many work-life balance blogs recommend putting aside electronic devices at least 30 minutes before going to bed in order to unwind and prepare for a good night’s sleep. In order not to be disturbed we can leave our electronic devices in the next room when going to bed. If this does not help, we can turn off the signal sound. If necessary, should we dare we can turn off all devices.
This text serves as a curatorial statement accompanying the exhibition All the Time at Work presented in BWA Tarnów, 14.04―15.05.2016
© 2016 Romuald Demidenko
(1) Data collected from OECD. Stat, https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=AVE_HRS.
(2)The critique of behaviours and relations established with electronic devices is developed in the research project Curious Rituals, Gestural Interaction in the Digital Everyday realized as part of Media Design Program, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, curiousrituals.nearfuturelaboratory.com.
(3) M. Flyverbom, P. M. Leonardi, C. Stohl, M. Stohl, “The Management of Visibilities in the Digital Age” [in:] International Journal of Communication, 10(2016), 98–109.
(4) The problem of privacy becomes especially topical after Edward Snowden had leaked facts connected with the activities of National Security Agency and the network users surveillance program called PRISM. In February 2016 the controversial bill about the Internet surveillance was introduced in Poland.
(5) See also A. Fidalgo, Heidegger’s cell phone – ubiquitous communication and existential distance, 2009.
(6) The Intuit 2020 Report, 2010, 21, http-download.intuit.com/http.intuit/CMO/intuit/futureofsmallbusiness/intuit_2020_report.pdf.
(7) See also D. Gallie et al, “The hidden face of job insecurity”, Work, Employment and Society, 2016.
http://wes.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/29/0950017015624399. Compare with: K. Gutfrański, “Czas wolności od czasu” (“Time of Freedom from Time”) [in:] Praca i wypoczynek, (Work and Leisure) ed. K. Gutfrański, 2012, 20–23.
(8) In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep Jonathan Crary considers the potential consequences of time, including leisure being appropriated by capitalism //twenty-four-seven.wikispaces.com/file/view/Late-Capitalism-and-the-Ends-of-Sleep-Jonathan-Crary.pdf.
All the Time at Work curated by Romuald Demidenko
Ghislain Amar, Tymek Borowski, Attila Csörgő, Jan Domicz, Agnieszka Kurant, Anna Maria Łuczak, Daniel Malone, John Menick, Cezary Poniatowski, Gregor Różański, Aleksandra Wasilkowska, Beata Wilczek
ul. Słowackiego 1