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December 31, 2012

How telecommuting threatens the work/life balance

(Continued)

In other words, telecommuters — the majority of whom still go to the office, even if less frequently than their non-telecommuting peers — are in some sort of Catch-22 here: They want to use technology to become more productive and spend more time with their families, but the availability of productivity-boosting technology also makes their managers believe that the employees will get more work done, on weekends or after dinner.

The 2008 Networked Workers survey from the Pew Research project offers some strong evidence to back up these claims, having found that "since 2002, working Americans have become more likely to check their work-related email on weekends, on vacation and before and after they go to work for the day." Perhaps telecommuters' constant connectivity means that those who physically commute have to check in more frequently, too.

Could it be that the labor-saving gadgets that were supposed to help restore our work/life balance would only make it worse? If so, historians of technology would not be much surprised by this ironic twist. In her classic "More Work for Mother," University of Pennsylvania historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan showed how the introduction of supposedly labor-saving devices into the household resulted in women doing ever more work. Gender relations aside, Schwartz's broader philosophical point was both simple and intriguing: The supposed benefits of such devices cannot be assessed in isolation from the broader social, economic and cultural context in which they are put to use.

So, short of a revolution, we, perhaps, should temper our enthusiasm for what productivity-boosting technology would deliver. As tempting as it might be to think that Google's self-driving cars will allow us to watch films instead of driving, we'd probably be spending this newly gained time glued to some boring spreadsheet. How is that for progress?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate.

Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor at the New Republic and the author of the forthcoming "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism."

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