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.
Music has been a part of commutes just as games and puzzles have been a part of waiting rooms prior to the proliferation of mobile devices. In 1996, Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe wrote about the many ways people cope with the tyranny of waiting. Her story described the “waiting room veteran” who returned to the hospital day after day to dote at the side of a coma patient. To pass the time, the veteran invited people to work on puzzles and provided hugs and comfort to those who needed it. Not all waiting rooms come with a kindhearted veteran, but mobile devices provide tools for coping such as abundant games and easy access to people who can give us comfort.
People also turn to media technologies to help them navigate the social dynamics of their homes. For example, Linda Paulson placed a television in her bathroom to create a private sanctuary away from her daily stresses. Paulson’s tactics are echoed in research that demonstrates the variety of ways people use media technologies and content to navigate the politics of everyday life. Media technologies can provide a topic of conversation for coworkers, a shared reference can be the currency that solidifies a friendship, and the positioning of screens can invite conversation or repel unwanted interactions. Smartphones and tablets are merely the latest media technologies to help people navigate the politics of public space.
Long before Internet-connected mobile devices became popular, Paulson, Hiliker, commuters, and “waiting room veterans” looked to sporting events, music, games, and television to help them connect with others and assert themselves in their surroundings. The versatility of smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers makes these technologies all-purpose tools for navigating specific contexts such as the living room, the commute, the workplace, and the waiting room. Mobile devices’ association with these specific contexts is meaningful as emerging technologies are inextricably linked to their primary contexts of use. The historian Carolyn Marvin explains that the development of the telephone, for example, was shaped by its integration into the home. As the telephone was a technology of the domestic sphere, manufacturers had to address concerns about privacy. Telephone companies addressed these fears by creating private lines and fostering formal etiquette. The film historian Robert Sklar describes a similar relationship between early film theaters, immigrant communities, and the foundations of the movie industry. The same goes for television’s rise to popularity, which Lynn Spigel attributes to the television industry’s efforts to situate the technology as a part of postwar suburban living rooms. In each of these cases, media technologies develop aesthetics and conventions appropriate to specific spatial contexts.
While mobile technology gives people greater control over their surroundings, it also allows advertisers and media companies into our everyday routines. Media companies attempt to capitalize on our mobile habits and behaviors in particular contexts. The media historian William Boddy explains, “the commercial launch of any new communications technology typically combines a public rehearsal of contested and self-serving fantasies of the new product’s domestic consumption with a polemical ontology of its medium and an ideological rationale for its social function.” The “rehearsal” and discursive process travels through five stages: “technical invention,” “cultural innovation,” “legal regulation,” “economic distribution,” and “social mainstreaming.” Boddy’s description provides a structure for tracking the progress of mobile devices in the cultural imagination. Mobile devices are currently in the moment of “economic distribution,” in which media industries and creative entrepreneurs attempt to develop long-term business models for this nascent technology. According to Boddy’s theory, once a viable business model takes hold, it shapes future production and consumer habits.
In 2007, the audience for Internet video matched the corresponding daytime television audience, inspiring entertainment companies to target online viewers. Digital production divisions such as New Line Cinema’s “the hub,” Sony’s “The Station” and “Crackle,” and NBC’s “Dotcomedy” created content specifically for the online audience. At the same time, the New York Times observed that American cubicle dwellers were increasingly choosing to spend their break time watching online videos, playing Flash games, and engaging in social networking instead of hanging out at the watercooler. The market research firm Visible Measures reported spikes in website traffic during the six-hour period from noon Eastern Time to three p.m. Pacific Time, when the audience went online looking for content during lunch breaks. Digital content executives such as NBC’s vice president of digital content and development, Carole Angelo, confirmed that studios adjusted their content and their production schedules to match these viewing behaviors. Targeting a specific audience at a specific time gave industry veterans a familiar template and business model for mobile screens. The proliferation of smartphones intensified the entertainment industries’ targeting of the workday online audience. A 2015 Pew study indicates that 68% of US adults have a smartphone, including 86% of those ages 18 to 29, and 83% of 30-to 49-year-olds. These are the same populations that are prized by advertisers and entertainment companies. Targeting these people’s “in-between” moments became a strategy for creating platforms and services for mobile devices. These efforts have implications for the form and content associated with mobile devices as companies such as NBC create short-form programs for mobile apps such as Snapchat that feature the vertical orientation and aspect ratio of the mobile screen.
I call these efforts to monetize mobile users’ in-between moments the procrastination economy. This book reveals the procrastination economy by putting mobile devices in historical, industrial, and spatial context. The procrastination economy predates mobile devices, but the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has dramatically expanded commercial interest. The procrastination economy is different from leisure time, for which producers can assume that consumers seek entertainment in the comfort of their home, a theater, or a specialized venue. It is different from work time, when people reach for their mobile phones to complete tasks. It is not a “distraction economy” because people actively choose to use their phones to help them navigate their surroundings. Many businesses offer products and services for leisure and work, but thanks to mobile devices, media companies are now targeting our in-between moments to help us kill time. Consumers in the procrastination economy largely accept efforts to monetize their mobile habits because in exchange, they receive tools for using culture, information, entertainment, or games to help them navigate a variety of social situations and enhance their mobile conversations. Media companies, device manufacturers, and software developers are each engaged in commercializing the procrastination economy.
In these efforts, they contribute to a common understanding of mobile media usage that privileges the behaviors and habits of the most active and monetizable members of the procrastination economy. Media companies develop distribution technologies and platforms such as the mobile apps for Netflix, YouTube Red, and HBOGo, designed to entice people to subscribe to these services in order to fill their in-between moments with streaming video. Marketers develop strategies to integrate their brands in the social interactions of those who will proselytize for their products via Snapchat “lenses,” emoji keyboards, and GIF generators. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter develop such interfaces as News Feed and Moments to simplify mobile navigation and make it easier to see advertisements when people communicate with friends during breaks in the day. Apple and Samsung develop hardware and software on their mobile devices, such as Background Playback, to ensure that people can use their Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal music subscriptions while they multitask in their in-between moments. Whether through content, marketing, or functionality, media companies are monetizing the procrastination economy by focusing on the habits of mobile users that are most amenable to subscription services, micropayments, and marketing.
Excerpted from The Procrastination Economy by Ethan Tussey (2018). Reprinted with permission from NYU Press.