Why do we take such pride in being busy? It's a question that thinkers have struggled with since the Industrial Revolution evolved enough to become self-reflexive, to look back on itself an examine its own byproducts. We now manage our own productivity with digital to-do lists and email management apps--the former sporting robust feature sets that simplify lists (note the irony), and the latter promising "inbox zero," or the lack of "things to do." Like a factory owner managing the physical output of his workers, we manage our mental output in the form of line items.
But come a long way since then in terms of how we think about productivity. Workers in the factory had no choice but to be productive; it was less a matter of pride and more about being able to eat. But we can observe a drastically different effect today: we only need to step into any corporate office to learn that productivity is not necessarily associated with success, and we all know that executive who spends his day doing little else than attending 2 hour "business" lunches and meetings to talk about future meetings, yet he makes triple your salary. The shift in mindset can be characterized as the difference between "productivity" and "production": one can produce many things without ever feeling productive, and similarly, one can feel productive without producing anything (...or anything tangible).
Productivity has evolved from necessity to desire. The "productive day" is that distant object toward which we strive but never quite achieve; there is always something else to do, someone else to meet, an email to send, call to return, article to write, conference to attend, lead to follow. We stumble about in the world accomplishing old tasks and discovering new ones. With every completion, three more present themselves, and we have no choice but to write them down, save them for later, vow to check them off the list at some point, complain about how they're piling up, even to the point of lying to ourselves and others about how busy we are, as if it were a matter of pride. We are always overloaded, even when we're not. The potential for more to-do items is perceived as a reality--even if a to-do list is completely empty, we are still busy because you just never know when there will be a flood of new tasks.
It's easy to see how this system of various tasks becomes overwhelming, disorienting, and anxiety-provoking. We eventually cannot separate things we want to do from things we need to do. Work is wrapped up in leisure.
Fearing chaos, we attempt to rationalize and optimize our outputs. Data is input into our sense of being (it becomes who we are), and our desire prompts us to absorb those irrational, chaotic inputs, consume them, digest them, and create a sense of productivity.
Through ever increasingly “simple” apps, aimed at making our lives easier, we incorporate the our productivity fetish with sense of self. We are our productivity, at least in terms of private-professional life. In public-leisure life, it’s just the opposite: we are what we consume. And things like to-do list and email management apps allow us consume and produce at the same time, to consume under the guise of production.
In High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman , R.L. Rutsky observes,
"The tendency of high tech toward minimalist design, inherited from aesthetic modernism, is actually an extension of modernity's tendency to technologize or instrumentalize the world, to abstract and reduce it into ever more minimal, more controllable forms[...]This digitization of ‘reality’ is the logical extension of the minimalist, functionalist aesthetic that high-tech style borrows from modernism. As such, it is also an extension of the technological rationalization of the world, through which ‘reality’ is abstracted and reduced into ever more minimal and potentially more controllable elements.”
Although I believe Rutsky mistakenly assumes that pure function automatically excludes form, he makes an interesting point about how a ‘functionalist aesthetic’ aims to reduce the world to manageable pieces. Reality becomes a deconstructed system, split into parts that can be apprehended in themselves, independent of one another. It’s a grotesque simplification of inherently complex forces. The irony is that the attempt to rationalize and simplify the personal means of production actually has the converse effect. External tools that manage inboxes and to-do items complicate the processes far beyond their original state. The solution creates the problem.
“In this "techno-culture;" the ‘rationalization’ of consumption has turned on itself, has begun to consume its own tail. Any end or value above or beyond this cycle has been discarded, liquidated. Style has become its own end, its own value...Consumption has become, in other words, a self-generating machine whose only ‘function’ is to reproduce an increasing surplus of its own technological style, its own simulacral technology-a surplus value whose only end is more consumption, more sales.”
It seems that we’re more concerned with managing to-do items than actually accomplishing them. Perhaps it’s the case that merely knowing what we’re supposed to do is enough to stave off the anxiety of being unproductive. This price of this defense mechanism is that the compensatory behavior sustains the object of anxiety: the more we compensate, the more uneasy we feel. But what’s the alternative? If a feeling of productivity is the object of desire, is there any hope of achieving it? Is it just the unavoidable effect of an industrial society?