'Shadow Work’, Social Media and Robots

Thoughts inspired by a book and a keynote.

August 11, 2015

Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day by Craig Lambert

Published in May of 2015.

"Yet despite predictions about the end of work, we are all working more. As games theorist Ian Bogost and others have observed, we seem to be in a period of hyper-employment, where we find ourselves not only working numerous jobs, but working all the time on and for technology platforms. There is no escaping email, no escaping social media. Professionally, personally – no matter what you say in your Twitter bio that your Tweets do not represent the opinions of your employer – we are always working. Computers and AI do not (yet) mark the end of work. Indeed, they may mark the opposite: we are overworked by and for machines (for, to be clear, their corporate owners)”.

"Often, we volunteer to do this work. We are not paid for our status updates on Twitter. We are not compensated for our check-in’s in Foursquare. We don’t get kick-backs for leaving a review on Yelp. We don’t get royalties from our photos on Flickr”.

Audrey Watters, from her keynote Teaching Machines and Turing Machines: The History of the Future of Labor and Learning at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute at UW Madison, 8/10/15.

It is common for us to complain in academia about how much time and energy it takes to do all those things ourselves that, in some mystical and hazy past, someone else once did.  

We schedule our own meetings through Outlook and Google Calendar.  We book our own travel through Kayak or Travelocity.  We manage our own communications (through e-mail), budgeting (Excel spreadsheets), and project (Asana).
Lambert’s point in Shadow Work is that the growth in cognitive and time consuming tasks that we must undertake for ourselves has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged. We don’t like that we spend endless hours in phone trees with customer service, but we don’t think we have any alternatives. We don’t seem to mind the fact that we interact with ATM’s rather than bank tellers, ticket kiosks rather than gate agents, and online travel sites rather than travel agents.  
Audrey Watters’ #digped  keynote adds another dimension to Lambert’s discussion of Shadow Work.  Should we include our participation in social media has yet another unpaid task that overfills our days?
My first response is perhaps more charitable towards the question of social media and shadow work.  I look at my own participation in social media as a gift, not a burden. Perhaps this is because I understand blogging, and to some extent Twitter, to be relational.  We use these platforms to understand and listen to each other.  
A second objection I have to worrying too much about social media and shadow work is television.  In my life I’ve replaced watching television with participating in social media. The hours that I once spent watching TV sports or HGTV is now spent talking to you. Over vacation last week I spent so much time watching Property Brothers that I think I’d be able to tell the brothers apart even if Drew didn’t have on his tie and Jonathan his tool belt. TV is wonderful, addictive, and pointless.  The hours that I’ve gained in not owning a TV have been swept up into the shadow work of social media - and this feels like a reasonable trade.
Shadow Work is one of the books that deserves your time and attention.
I recommend that you read Shadow Work and Martin Ford’s excellent  Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future together.
Taken together, both works generate a set of difficult questions about the future of work, including academic work. It wasn’t until I read Watters’ keynote that put the streams of social media, shadow work, and the rise of the robots together. 
What are you reading?


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top