The agora and the hivemind

Have you ever felt like there’s so much to do, but you never make any progress? When I worked as an office worker, my manager drilled it into us that to remain competitive in an increasingly connected global economy, workers would have to be able to multitask – handle many requests in flight concurrently and work on them in parallel, bringing together stakeholders to build consensus.

As a line cook in a restaurant, it was expected that cooks would be able to do any role in the restaurant – order ingredients, clean dishes, serve customers, prep ingredients, the whole shebang, especially in parallel.

As a warehouse worker, we were expected to be able to handle a larger number of requests every month, with the same or smaller team, mentally juggling many POs at the same time to meet tighter deadlines for the sake of efficiency.

As a tech worker, we were expected to exceed for our customers – answer pings at 3 a.m, make sure our service was free of security defects, make a bi-weekly “agile” show and tell, and work on our project while having 7 hours of meetings a day.

All these jobs had disastrous consequences – the office workers became so unproductive that they quit in droves, many of the line cooks suffered physical injury, including losing a finger, and the warehouse workers, well, many of them had to go on disability. Many of the tech workers quit as well, tired of being unproductive and overworked.

I could pontificate about how shareholder capitalism is at odds with labor, but I’ll leave that for another time. Instead, I’ll talk about how overstimulation via the internet is leading to an increase in multitasking, crippling our one true superpower – the ability to concentrate.

Lots has been said about increasing productivity in the workplace (it’s been a hot topic for over a century now), but I’ve noticed in myself and others that we can’t concentrate as well as we used to. We turn to our phones for diet entertainment, forgoing the relaxation and concentration of past times.

Sustenance farmers did it best, I think. When I lived on a farm, the schedule was simple – wake up at 5 or so, before the sun rises to get washed up, eat a small meal, and dressed to tackle the day’s work.

You’d work slowly, maybe handling some maintenance tasks like setting up a net so the animals don’t eat your crops, or patching holes in rice paddies so those dang beavers don’t drain all the water from your patch. In the summer, it’d get too hot by 11 or so, so you’d retire back home, eat a small lunch, and take a nap – four, five hours.

After that, you’d set out again after the heat cooled off, finishing off your tasks for the day, maybe leaving some tools outside for tomorrow, taking note of what needs to be done, before retiring to eat dinner, wash up and sleep for the next day.

Sometimes you needed your plots to lay fallow, or sometimes the other people in your village would share tools, or maybe someone needed to be a substitute teacher for the little ones because the only teacher in town had a family emergency. You wouldn’t think of things in terms of money – you’d repay each other with favors and do the right thing (most of the time). You could borrow someone else’s plot that hasn’t been used in a while, maybe in exchange for something like crops or tools or a service, like fixing up their house’s roof. We’d congregate at the town center, asking for favors, doing favors, and building up the shared community. People were happy, for the most part.

Most of us used to lead that kind of life, until the businesspeople lured us over to factories with the promise of wages and benefits, promising us milk and honey but leaving us with regrets and sadness.

Thanks for nothing, capitalists.

Industrialization was one game changer, but the internet was another. Instead of having a set of town centers, one for each town or thereabouts, we can now have a town center in our own houses (or pocket, with cell phones).

With this kind of super power, we should be able to use it to our own benefit. And we did, kind of. There’s lots of nice services these days that make our lives easier, but they don’t make our lives more fulfilling.

And in exchange, we’ve lost our ability to focus, robbing us of one of the paths to fulfillment.

We’ve all become part of the hivemind.

It’s impossible to have all of us disconnect. There will only be a few people who want to build their own house off the grid and grow their own crops and maintain a solar panel for electricity.

For the rest of us, we can only set boundaries – but I implore you to think about the agora model – where we only go to town a few days out of the week at most. We don’t always have to be connected. A slower pace of life isn’t bad.

For me, as a programmer, that means downloading the resources I need to work offline. On my personal computer, I have a copy of the documentation of all the tools I work with, books, papers, and syllabuses for courses I’d like to learn from, and offline copies of interesting websites that I could learn a lot from (mainly in the form of rss, but a recursive wget does the trick for sites that don’t have an rss feed), copies of music I like listening to.

I only need to go online sometimes, since I’ll always have something to enjoy.

One side effect is that you won’t hate the airplane as much – I just open up a paper I’ve wanted to read, a textbook, a course, and jump right in. It’s a wonderful way to pass the time and really feel productive by the end.