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Bull Session

Is Leisure Dead? Exploring Time Poverty in the Digital Age

January 8, 2015          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, the first of 2015, we discuss the design of time, and in particular, the rampant busyness of the digital age — what has been described as the time poverty of knowledge workers.

It seems like the work of the digital worker is never done. Software helps users complete tasks more efficiently, but there are two sides to that coin. As we get things done, we are expected to do even more things, adding to that eternal sense of busyness. How do we separate work from play, busyness from leisure in the digital age? Join us as we explore that question.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 84 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey Jon, we are just back from the holidays. I know you took a lot of time off to enjoy with your family.

Jon:
Yeah, that was a much needed respite and it allows me to at least a little bit relax my mind and do some reading and get recharged for the year ahead. How about yourself Dirk? Did you get to do some things that you liked?

Dirk:
Yeah I did work a little bit less, not a lot less than usual but I worked on things really just projects that I really enjoy and like. I did some work I didn’t like but for the most part I was able to shift and just do stuff that I really enjoy. That was terrific and now it is back to reality and the routine of everyday life.

Jon:
That’s right. To kick off the Digital Life for 2015, I think we are going to talk today about the design of something that I know everybody finds valuable and that’s the design of time. In particular, what has been called time poverty, as another way of describing this rampant busyness that I think a lot of knowledge workers and people who spend a lot of time in the digital work life feel. I think that as part of the software design and development industry our efforts are always gauged towards improving an experience, so you can get through tasks more efficiently, so we can automate things so people can get the job done quickly. But there’s two sides to that coin which is, as we get stuff done more quickly we are expected to do more things, thus adding to that time poverty that we are experiencing, this busyness. What’s your perspective on that Dirk?

Dirk:
I think it is very true. The walls have been knocked down, whereas I started my career in design and this kind of stuff in the late ‘90s. That was at the very beginning of all this. I remember that email was pretty new for the business at that point. The first company I was in, an ad agency and it was definitely changing things for the people who had been there for a while. They weren’t used to real time communication. They weren’t used to the idea that they could or should expect to have work to do that had to do with clients and communication and moving things forward outside of work hours. Now, 15 plus years later it is an orgy man. We are at the boundaries of where things stop and start with our different devices.

Are your devices yours or they your company’s? What are the ramifications on that? It is just wild. Now this stuff is with us all the time and it is really hard to turn off the expectations particularly in progressive industries and emerging technologies are hardcore because it is more aggressive, more ambitious people generally who have moved into these things as opposed to the more traditional and slower industries. The net of it is you are always on not in the sense of … Maybe not in the sense that that phrase is typically used but you are always working. The notion of leisure time is something that is walled off and different. It doesn’t exist anymore and it is tricky because I’m a hard person to comment on it because I like working.

I’m wired to want to work all the time so this confluence of technologies and platforms and changing social expectations of what is working, what isn’t doesn’t bother me. In fact it is probably better for me. I like and function my best in that sort of an environment but Jon you are someone who does really like to unplug and take free time. I’m interested for you, what is the impact? As you look at your leisure, how has that changed and how would you wish it was different?

Jon:
I struggle with this quite a bit I think because there’s a need in my own personal cycle to be able to recharge and I actually very much understand your approach Dirk in wanting to be doing something. I find actually that sometimes my best ideas for work come when I’m unplugged and relaxing. To give you an example of that, when I took some time around the holidays I all of a sudden in the middle of whatever a meal or something had a bunch of ideas for that I wanted to write about.

I quickly ran and grabbed a notebook and wrote all those things down but in a general sense the intrusiveness of our communication methods, whether they are via your mobile phone or just email on your desktop or any other kinds of communication types that you can engage on now social media, video calling, all of these things, I struggle with drawing lines where those boundaries are preventative and enable me to have that personal space to unwind. While I enjoy the communication and the fast pace of things, I definitely need to not pay attention to my phone or to my email at certain times.

The best way that I found is just making that space around particular activities, whether it is family dinner or some period of time at night when I might be able to sit down write some music or read a book or something but for the most part, I’m actually very bad at being able to manage those inputs, the communication inputs and feel a little bit obsessive about needing to check whether I have some email and even if it’s like a 11 o’clock at night, which I think it is interesting, it is very interesting because I think the optimization of our work life is bleeding into our leisure life and I want to talk about that a little bit because I think at least for me the idea that I would have some free time and not be having a relaxed moment really drives me batty.

My tolerance for a bad experience in my leisure time or not using that time wisely has also ratcheted it up. Now I can get my HBO Go on every single device that I own but lord knows I don’t want to watch bad movies anymore. Maybe that’s another sign of me turning into a curmudgeon but I will check all the reviews and make sure that if I have two hours to watch a movie, I want to make sure that I’m watching a topnotch movie because I have so little time. Even though I can access pretty much a library of everything HBO has ever created, I’m very jealous of my leisure time as well. Are you finding any of that as you have digital leisure time?

Dirk:
Yeah for sure. Less and less tolerant for inefficiency. Yeah, I mean it shouldn’t be a surprise. If we go back and look at the industrial revolution and the evolution of that, from the very beginning it was about how can we do this faster? How can we do this more efficiently? How can we do this cheaper? That thinking has driven the last couple of hundred years of history. It certainly is core to technology and the way that digital technologies have evolved. The whole idea of the storage space doubling every year for example. It’s always been about bigger, better, faster, more.

We’ve created this world that is increasingly becoming full of digital technologies and it has trained all of us to be on that cycle of new phone every year, new computer every year and just always expecting more and better and not just like kind of be content with what we’ve got and the way that we’ve got it. I think it has infiltrated in a lot of different ways but to your specific example, part of this is my personality but I don’t buy or watch anything until I’ve really researched it. For me I think it’s less about these technology changes. I’ve just always been that way, like I’m perfectionistic probably to a full where I want to make sure if I’m spending time or doing something that’s the right thing.

Before the internet, I would talk to people or research. Before buying a car, I would put a lot of time into it. Now it is just easier. Again I think it is idiosyncratic to me but for me I haven’t seen that same change. It is always a part of my personality and the changes to technology have just made it better and easier for me to indulge in those.

Jon:
I think there is an important, an ongoing lesson for us as user experienced designers and looking at the different user types, whether it is an enterprise or a consumer software that the use of time is increasingly going to become important as part of a design not just within your own software but as part of that ecosystem of software that most users have now. If you are designing an optimized enterprise CRM or some other large piece of software you are now not just concerned with the time that the user is spending in your system but also the amount of time that they have across the board to be spending with frankly any kind of software system because they have all these other responsibilities.

I think designers will have to acknowledge that the products that we are working on really need to provide an increasing amount of value because frankly people don’t have the time to use your software unless it is really critical. I know that might seem a little bit obvious to say but if you think about the amount of time we spend in front of our machines, who really has that additional half hour or hour to give in a day? Not many people. We really do need to be considerate of our users’ time increasingly so I think in design.

Dirk:
The other aspect of this, I don’t know if this is something I’ve talked about on the show before or just written about it, all conflates in my mind but the expectations of users now for software is much higher because the quality of design has gone up so much. In the 1990s, pretty much all software was just a shit user experience to varying degrees. As the importance of UX and design have increased and we’ve seen that quality bar go way, way up and that’s terrific for users. It is terrific for the world but the challenge is the negative there is that the expectations for each of us in the software we create to have it be well designed goes up because the user baseline for what is an acceptable experience is much higher now and the degree to which we are able to exceed that or heaven forbid, fall below it will have a huge impact on the trajectory of whatever it is we are creating.

Jon:
Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s very much the case. I don’t know if you can have a … Map that to something like a Moore’s Law of user experience design but as experience design improves over time, the table stakes as you were saying increase and it is no longer good enough to just have a rudimentary user experience. You really need to be able to create something that people will care to engage with. The last thing I wanted to mention in regards to the design of time and time poverty is that as we create these technologies which save us time in many industries, this is causing all kinds or disruption around the way industries operate.

Increasingly so, software is not only making things more efficient but it is also displacing people from their work. Designers don’t normally put ourselves in this category but as we’ve discussed before it is very possible that certain aspects of design will get automated in the coming years. Part of our march towards efficiency and the use of our time more effectively may ultimately result for designers in the loss of work at least the way we know it right now. What are your thoughts on that Dirk?

Dirk:
Yeah, I agree.

Jon:
It seems like we are working ourselves out of a job. Hopefully not but you never know. At least that’s the way I see it.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean there is a whole other vector to this of artificial intelligence. I was telling my wife just last night. She is a medical illustrator. She does this custom art for really complex genetic and healthcare context. I was saying to her, “You know at some point there is going to be a computer doing your job. There is going to be no place for a medical illustrator” and she was kind of horrified. She took that as a criticism of what she does. No, no it is not at all. That’s the way we are going. Even today as I think about some of the highest value or most difficult things that I do I know how to reverse engineer those and if I was working with a good AI programmer, I could give them the logic to show a machine how to go through the steps necessary to come out with outputs similar to what I do and make me totally irrelevant.

I think the question we are going to be coming to is that people don’t need to work. There’s just everything can be done by machines and if people don’t need to work, what does that mean? People working that is one of the tools used to create order within society. If you have a lot of people who don’t need to work, what are they doing? I think that work will be created just to keep people cowed when there doesn’t even need to be. I think there is much more complicated questions around time and leisure and control that are adjacent to these things we are talking about.

Jon:
Maybe and hopefully we will have the opportunity to explore those further in 2015. Listeners, remember that while you are listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to the digitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it is a rich information resource to take advantage of while you were listening or afterward if you are trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on twitter @Jonfollett J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on twitter @dknemeyer @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me at dirk@goinvo.com

Jon:
That’s it for episode 84 of the digital life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we will see you next time.

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