Posted on | November 5, 2012 | 7 Comments
Here is the start of a paper I’m working on for the ‘Data, Memory, Territory’ workshop at UWS in November. It is lonely writing in a foreign hotel room! So I post it here in case anyone has any feedback. Given the frame for the event I’m hoping to develop the relationship between time, mastery and territory, including the imposition of temporality and control in the colonial sense that I think Dourish and Mainwaring mean in this paper (pdf). More thoughts welcome.
Measuring productivity through GTD and life-hacking
‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) and ‘life-hacking’ applications allow users to accomplish their goals and reclaim appropriate space-time perception in the face of network culture’s immersive and distracting potential. Through a range of measures, from shutting down email and non-priority communication to quantifying peak performance periods for maximum efficiency, GTD apps facilitate the pleasures of individual productivity. With names like ‘SelfControl,’ ‘Omnifocus’, ‘Rescue Time’ and ‘Freedom’, their intent is to offer liberation as much as consolation: to provide mastery over extraneous matters and the fallibility of memory to ensure optimal work flow.
This new software industry solves the difficulty workers and individuals face in the battle against new media technologies’ distracting potential. But it is also a technological solution to an ontological and empirical problem. The networked nature of contemporary work makes it possible to deliver more information than ever before, and hence more requests for employees’ attention than it is possible to action. This poses significant risks to the wellbeing of workers faced with the psychological challenge of managing information and communication requests largely on their own. GTD apps suggest that access to the plenitude of data available in online networks can lead to an inability to accomplish routine tasks, whether professional or domestic (as the application ‘Remember the Milk’ illustrates). Chronic, habitual online connectivity – our compulsion to connect – raises important questions about interest, self-surveillance, agency and will.
Emanating from the male-dominated fields of IT design and hacker subcultures, GTD illustrates the shift towards ‘algorithmic living’. The services provided by productivity apps include turning human behaviour into data and code for measurement, and thus potential adjustment and improvement, through a quantified self. In this sense, the connection between GTD and hacking lifestyles dating back to the beginnings of the World Wide Web require exploration. The GTD worldview approaches personal and professional tasks alike as challenges to be overcome through efficient programming. It rests on an innate technological optimism that has characterised key moments in the history of the Internet. What this latest manifestation of tech-utopia suggests is that there may be a growing section of the population for whom the ability to act without the prompting of computer platforms is either undesirable or unthinkable. In practice, GTD applications respond to as much as they may also exacerbate the fallibility of human memory in the face of data overload.
To focus on the technological dimensions of GTD alone however is to miss some significant lineages that also assist in understanding its function. ‘Getting Things Done’ is one of the most successful titles in the broader suite of time management publications that have been a feature of office life over the course of many decades. GTD owes a debt to this longer legacy of management self-help and discourses of professionalism that typified mid-century modernity – the classic period of Fordist production. As the ranks of middle management swelled in the organization era, the genre of business self-help served as a training ground for a generally male business class seeking to secure reputational capital and the benefits of life-long employment. In flexible, decentralised organizations today, time management has been one of the most prominent of techniques cultivated by individuals to maintain productivity and employability. No longer satisfied by the predictability of a company career, employees have increasingly gained fulfillment through proximity to ‘projects’ and ‘networks’, just as their employers offered the benefits of ‘flexibility’ as opposed to stability. With their emphasis on streamlined workflow, the efficiency logics of GTD apps epitomise these broader cultural trends. They evolve in tandem with management protocols inviting employees to display autonomy and responsibility by ‘working smarter, not harder’. Yet the significance of these survival skills in today’s employment market is their distance from the career path underpinning earlier efforts at professional strategising. GTD’s individualised response to workplace inefficiency is a marker of the inchoate labour politics of the ‘precarious’ white-collar worker.
The self-sufficient worker downloading GTD apps today takes on the imperative of productivity in spite of a generalised lack of employment and institutional security. In this present period of cognitive capitalism, the distinction between ‘material’ (manual) and so-called ‘immaterial’ (mental) labour dissolves, since the source of surplus value even for highly trained workers results in similar forms of ontological precarity. As distinct from Fordist modes of production, in cognitive capitalism the worker’s experience of surveillance moves from externally imposed discipline to internal self-management. This explains the freedom workers feel in identifying with imperatives that are directly productive for capital. The combined effect of these changes, in which the whole of one’s life and personality are available for profitable benefits, calls for careful scrutiny of the perceived benefits of productivity at an individual and social level.
The difference between time management in the organizational era – defined by ‘to do’ lists, clock time, and a highly gendered division of labour – and GTD in the network era – where employees at all levels are equally responsible for their productivity – is thus also the difference between professional and post-professional subjectivity. This is a work context in which traditional forms of management surveillance are less obvious since the innate value of productivity is no longer questioned. But it is also a moment in which the commonsense tenets of individualism and freedom have become so embedded in technology design that a cooperative politics of resistance is significantly impaired.
The philosophy of time management underpinning productivity applications takes a particular notion of time for granted. It assumes that time, like the worker, can be disciplined in line with the imperatives of capitalist production, and it does this in an unquestioning way. Using feminist theories of time that have emerged in the wake of the ‘corporeal turn’ and the rise of affect theory, this paper questions the default definition of ‘time’ in ‘time management’. GTD’s faith in technology as the salve for broader ontological insecurity offers an interesting take on questions of data and territory insofar as it illuminates technology’s role in users’ everyday attempts to control the unpredictable terrain of labour and ‘life itself’. But comparative analysis of time management manuals and GTD apps, along with feminist philosophy and cultural theory, can critique ‘the order of things’ that is life-hacking’s mandate to reproduce. It can further reveal the neat fit between the GTD outlook and the isolating but not inevitable tendencies of neoliberal biopolitics.
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