Technology has now ushered us into the age of 'hyperemployment'

Innovation Hub

It’s hard to believe that the iPhone debuted only eight years ago. In less than a decade, we’ve somehow bounded from wide-eyed dazzle over “the future of technology” to a sort of mass ennui — yeah, we’re helplessly dependent on our apps, so what? Old news.

Well, Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Ian Bogost warns us not to be so quick to wave the white flag — but not because iPhones chip away at our memories, attention spans, or social lives.

Bogost looks at something a little deeper and a lot less talked about: a vast cultural shift he calls “hyperemployment.”

“Think of all the ways we do more work than we used to,” he challenges. “You’ll start to see all these places where overemployment is sort of leaking out of our day.”

Bogost, author of “The Geek’s Chihuahua: Living With Apple,” isn’t just talking about checking our work email in the Starbucks line. Instead, he’s arguing against the idea that uber-modern tech streamlines clunky tasks, like booking hotels, to make room for our noble day Jobs.

Quite the opposite: our phones have generated hundreds of little, compulsory actions we now take on ourselves — from managing our money to forking over our data to media giants.

This means that, in eight short years, we’ve all become scattered “employees” of Facebook, Google, Twitter… even ourselves, as our own personal PR/marketing teams. “You add all of them up – the marketing, the accounting, the management of procurement – and it’s the equivalent of multiple other real jobs," Bogost explains.

Outsourcing work to others — the next piece of the iPhone zeitgeist, the so-called “sharing economy” — is a reaction to all this extra work. But, to Bogost, feeding our addiction to surface-level efficiency won’t buy us any real time. “We will all be continuing to do these little pickup jobs, and less and less of our work lives will be stabilized,” he insists.

To illustrate, Bogost breaks it down by class: “normal” nine-to-fivers will feel the pressure of intense stratification, while those without such stability will split more and more shifts with the middle class. Even the unemployed are, well, overemployed — think unpaid internships, Hackathons, even sweepstakes.

“They feel like opportunities, until you realize, ‘Hmm. I’m doing all this work on spec, and it’s kind of a lottery who’s going to get picked.’”

Bogost says this is putting both white and blue-collar work at risk — so why are we handing over our safety net?

“It speaks to our desire to feel important. For better or for worse, we look at overwork as a value.”  

A version of this story first aired as an interview on PRI's Innovation Hub.

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