Procrastination and Technology

As we become more and more inclined to the digital world it's important to know how we're spending our waiting time.

| April 2018

  • "A 2015 Pew Research study showed that the top-five places for using smartphones were: “at home” (99%), “in transit” (82%), “at work” (69%), “waiting in line” (53%), and “at a community place” (51%)."
    Photo by Getty Images
  • The Procrastination Economy by Ethan Tussey
    Photo by NYU Press

According to The Procrastination Economy (NYU Press, 2018) in moments of downtime – waiting for a friend to arrive or commuting to work – we pull out our phones for a few minutes of distraction. Just as television reoriented the way we think about living rooms, mobile devices have taken over the interstitial spaces of our everyday lives. Ethan Tussey argues that these in-between moments have created a procrastination economy, an opportunity for entertainment companies to create products, apps, platforms, subscription services, micropayments, and interactive opportunities that can colonize our everyday lives.

During the Second World War, factory owners responding to trends in industrial psychology devoted considerable time to identifying music that could make employees more productive. In 1937, the Industrial Health Research Board of Great Britain conducted a study in which the productivity of confectionery workers was measured against the temporal qualities of six different music genres. The researchers were looking for music that could alleviate the boredom of repetitive factory work and mitigate procrastination. The study showed that workers responded to a program of “familiar” and “simple” dance music that changed styles after no “less than one hour or more than two hours in each spell of work.” The study, and others like it, inspired employers, governments, and companies to compose music that could make their employees more productive.

The arrival of transistor radios a few years later gave individuals the ability to change their surroundings through the power of music. It was clear that music had a positive impact on the workplace, but could people be trusted to listen to the “right” kind of music to maximize productivity? In 1965, a New York Times editorial decried the noise and distraction that modern technologies had brought to the city and saved particular vitriol for the “cretins” who “lovingly hug their shrieking transistor radios with a look of rapt idiocy.” Mobile devices, whether transistor radios or smartphones, can reveal individual will and threaten institutional order because they offer agency in public spaces. Despite this disruptive potential, people find ways of integrating their mobile device use into the rhythms of their workday.

The proliferation of Internet-connected mobile devices amplifies the issues raised by transistor radios. A 2013 Advertising Age report showed that people spend more time engaged with personal mobile devices than with any other media screen. According to the study, people most often use their devices to text, email, Internet browse, make calls, listen to music, play with apps, consult maps, and “check in” (sharing their location information). The centrality of these devices in our daily lives has raised concerns that the technology may be contributing to loneliness, arrested development, shortened attention spans, and declines in grammar, memory, and intimacy. These concerns focus on the functionality of the mobile technology and the time spent on the devices. Often missing from stories about mobile devices is the context of use, which media scholars such as Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy argue is essential to understanding media technologies. A 2015 Pew Research study showed that the top-five places for using smartphones were “at home” (99%), “in transit” (82%), “at work” (69%), “waiting in line” (53%), and “at a community place” (51%). The hours logged on mobile devices may seem egregious, but they become much more understandable when considered as an enhancement of existing behaviors in these specific contexts.

For example, people such as Lee Ann Hiliker of Hobbs Herder Advertising in Santa Ana, California, have organized NCAA tournament office pools since the sporting event expanded to 64 teams in 1985. For Hiliker, the tournament provided a common topic of conversation and a chance to learn more about her coworkers and to brag about her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Office workers such as Hiliker and her colleagues predict the winner of each tournament game, and the entrant with the most correct predictions wins the pool. In 2006, CBS began offering a free streaming video broadcast of its NCAA tournament coverage, which allowed employees to watch games at their desks. The audience research firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas estimatedthat the event cost the nation’s economy billions of dollars in lost productivity. Major media outlets picked up on this figure and published stories about the dangers of watching the games at work. These alarmist reports ignored the fact that employees discussed the tournament, checked scores, or set up portable televisions to watch the tournament long before streaming video was a part of office culture. Furthermore, the numbers used in the Challenger, Gray, and Christmas estimate are only accurate if every person that reported to be a sports fan in the country decided to watch every second of every game at work. Such a scenario is highly improbable. The outrage and concern over workplace viewing focuses on the disruptive potential of the mobile devices instead of the ways they relate to existing workplace culture.

A similar complaint is levied against the use of mobile devices on the commute. Critiques of mobile devices claim that this technology disconnects inpiduals from the community. Buskers have sung on public transit to earn money and transform trains into communal concert halls for decades. Public-transit authorities discourage these performances and encourage riders to wear headphones if they want to transform their commute through music. Considering these restrictions, smartphones actually increase options for socializing on public transit by enabling people to engage in conversations remotely and discreetly.

1/12/2019 3:48:22 AM


John Gabriel Otvos
4/27/2018 9:35:39 AM

The new digital technology including the so-called social media sites, have not seemed to make humanity a kinder, more considerate or compassionate species. I see people who are addicted to the notification bells and buzzers as well as a lack of courtesy in relying upon or not replying. One would never imagine answering a telephone call from a friend =in the manner that is now seemingly universally accepted without salutation, greeting or even a: "How are You, today?"

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