We wake up, pick up our phones and check the to-do lists on the well-designed apps we have carefully picked from the virtual store. There were plenty to choose from, but each promised to make our lives more productive and to render us in control of them. We fell for their sweet words and considerations, willing to try to make more time for our loved ones and friendships in times when work was filling a great part of our day.
By falling for the productivity rhetoric, we have entered into a discourse in which we have shifted responsibility from the system and onto the individual. Rather than questioning or resenting the current state of things for taking away our free time, we look at our to-do lists, see tasks overflowing and proceed to ask ourselves why we didn’t do better at managing them. Thus, we, as individuals, have become more “accountable” and try to hold ourselves to certain standards which we perceive as natural, without really questioning how the idea of productivity or productive management came to exist in the first place.
The promise that those apps, software programs or wearables offer is control, but they don’t show us what we lose in this trade-off. In order to give us the impression of control, they must collect data to understand our behaviours, rhythms and even our own physical metabolisms. To “take control” represents a huge trade-off that so many of us make without even doubting it. At first, the terms and conditions are chunky, and we lack a legal understanding of them. Next, there is the entire rhetoric around taking power and dramatically improving our lives, which looks appealing during times of uncertainty.
The trade-off is immense if we distance ourselves from short-term thinking and our naïve assumptions that companies have nothing to gain from spying on us. The sooner we realize that the collection of our data can be used for political gains, such as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, or for encouraging consumption, the sooner we will actually understand the risks associated with this trade-off. Not only do these companies know what we do with our days, but they also understand our patterns: shopping, the way we divide our days, when we go to sleep, when we feel more prone to consume and so on. That data, which looks innocent enough to us, can be used to create subjects—to predict and to make us more predictable.
Once this data collection has occurred and is used to increase consumption of certain goods, we are left in a place where we feel that we lack understanding. Despite how disciplined a person is on a daily basis, there will still be moments when our tasks do not get completed, and feelings of guilt will start to prevail. And, more than that, we might soon apply those productivity strategies to our familial relationships and our spare time. A walk in the park would no longer be just a time to reconnect with friends, and dinner would no longer be just a lovely date with your partner—these would become productive activities, aimed at maximizing joy, minimizing risks and granting a high return.
Quite frankly, this is the capitalist speech that we hear when we think of business practices. Applying it to our human relationships might have looked dystopian to those who remember a time when their steps were not tracked, their weight was not measured by apps and their calendars were not read out loud by a vocal assistant. To many of us, trying to be more productive looks like something natural from which all of us could benefit.
But while we become more accountable and try to judge, guilt-trip and punish ourselves for our nonproductive moments, we strip the economic system of its culpability. In the race for productivity, we must not point to other individuals and view them as being robotic for succumbing to this discourse. For many, there are no other alternatives, since getting employed after graduation is a harsh prospect that requires a heavy maximization of all chances at one’s disposal. And for many more of us, if we haven’t yet fully shifted our lifestyle towards productivity, we have implemented bits of it here and there by wearing an Apple Watch, tracking our calories or allowing our phones to decide when we should sleep and wake up.
There is nothing inherently wrong with maximizing the number of tasks you can accomplish in a day. Where it gets problematic is when the economic system manages to control us even when we are not at work, leaving us in a state of continuous employment. It is not just about answering emails while in bed; it is also about the ideology to which we fall victim. And in order to combat it, we must pay greater attention to data collection and to the right to disconnect, and to holding the system more accountable for the weight it puts on our shoulders.
Radu Stochita is a member of the Class of 2022.