My various experiments in blogging, website design and online selling have given me an opportunity to reflect on how computers help us to do work. If you are starting from scratch, you decide in advance what you are dealing with and set rules about what you want to happen, then someone sets up a computer program to make it happen that way. If the computer program has already been written, as is the case with a pre-existing online selling website, or a blogging platform, most of that work has been done, and you need to work out how to achieve what you want to do within the confines of existing features of the application.
This automated nature of the computer applications means is a lot of effort goes into modelling scenarios and building solutions based on what might happen and how it might be dealt with before it actually happens. Computers aren’t less work, they are a different type of work. Setting them up is not easy. Establishing the requirements for a computer application, building, testing and maintaining it is difficult work that deals with minute details and complex rules and operations. Customising an existing applications to your needs presents the challenge of working within pre-existing assumptions and solutions that might not be a good fit for your situation.
This digital age has created a lot of employment opportunities for knowledge workers, who are paid to focus their abilities and intelligence on these types of highly complex problems. Its can be interesting and challenging work that engages the mind and makes strong demands on the intellect. Knowledge workers are presented with an endless stream of problems to investigate, analyse and solve. Problems so complex that you have to get totally absorbed in the details to be able to do the work. Problems so complex that you lose yourself in them, and wake up at night trying to resolve them. Problems so complex that they take up an enormous amount of disc space in your consciousness, at the cost of other potential objects of your attention.
I suspect this need to become deeply absorbed in the work in order to do it well, and the tendency for it to spill over into free time, is a reason why some people feel the urge to resist or rebel against technology work. This may be one reason why people “play” on the internet when they are supposed to be working. They want to infuse their consciousness with something that speaks to their own identity, rather than having a head full of technical problems. It may be why some people long to quit their job and “follow their passion”. Of course if we work in IT applying out attention to the task at hand is what we are paid for, and those of us who are conscientious strive to do that well. But there can be an underlying fear that devoting so much time and attention to our work is causing us to miss out.
My recent experience with trying to set up rules to calculate postage rates for potential online sales reminded me of the all consuming nature of knowledge work. While my mind was spinning over how to solve this issue it was very difficult to connect with other people who were right in front of me, or other projects that I wanted to work on. I felt consumed by the problem I was trying to solve in my head and it was distancing me from other things that were important. I am good at analysis and problem solving because I DO throw myself into a problem and get involved in all the detailed complexity. I DO put all my resources into coming up with a solution to a messy multi-faceted scenario. But that commitment to the task and absorption in its logic does not leave a lot of space for anything else. It can be such an effort to get a grasp on the details of a specific issue, it can be difficult to put it down over lunch, or at the end of the day.
Creativity, writing, photography, relationships, spiritual development. These are the things that are important to me. There is an opportunity cost to performing well in a demanding full time job, and these are the causalities. I don’t want to be ignoring the people around me because my head is full of a complex abstract problem. I don’t want nights and weekends to reduced to “recovery time”. When I am on my death bed, I don’t want to be reflecting on my ability to analyse data, processes and applications. I will on occasion lend my attention to solving problems and puzzles, for work or fun. But I will be guarding against the high-jacking of my consciousness to the detriment of people and projects that are important to me. At this time in my life, I want to use the best of my time, attention and creativity for my own priorities.