Questions and Concerns: Technology, Work, Family, Life

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Some reflections in progress about probably far too many things... Feel free to leave comments, questions, etc..

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Initial Questions about Mobile ICTs

A few months ago, I thought my project was about smartphones -- or at least mobile ICTs. Fieldwork-wise, I've already spent time with 3 families in SoCal (2 families x 4 visits in a week; 1 family x 14 visits over 6 weeks), and corporate professionals in an organizational context (~30 interviews + ~10 days of workplace observations over 4 months). I have been planning a (hopefully) complementary study of mobile ICT use with a different population — long-distance hikers. In shifting my attention to (unemployed) hikers, I would hope to open up some of the concepts from previous smartphone research that has focused primarily on working professionals.

At that point, I had a whole set of questions arranged around themes, something like this:

What does it mean to be ‘connected’? To who? To what? Via who/what? [Likewise for ‘dis-connection,’ ‘unplugging.’ Since that is so popular these days.]
More than just tools for communication, smartphones are also tools of capture: of pictures, knowledge, data about the self (think personal wellness apps). (How) do smartphones play a role in creating memories of a once-in-a-lifetime event?
How do people articulate boundaries: What is natural or not? Is nature something a person can be part of? An object? What kinds of objects? Etc…
In HCI, “naturalness” is often a tool for creating ubiquitous computing, and a measure of whether an object is ubiquitous. What kinds of things are ubiquitous for hikers? What does it mean for a device to be “ubiquitous”? What are the markers and stakes of “ubiquity? (How) does this relate to “naturalness”?
Intimacy, boundaries, technology as self/other
This comes up a lot with professionals. When/how is the smartphone articulated as intimate & personal, part of or aligned with the self? When do people move to distance it as other? Technologies (gear) is super important for hiking & super-personal (carried for 5 months!). How do ICTs fit in?

Evolving Questions about Work, Family, Life

I started fieldwork with a new family in SoCal (14 x 4 hour visits, spread over 7 weeks), and of course, they were not really using their smartphones at home at all! Nonetheless, the way that their life seems to revolve entirely around their work totally freaked me out. And so that got me reading Melissa Gregg's Work's Intimacy and Kathi Weeks's The Problem with Work ... and so now I have a bunch of reflections and other questions that will be somewhat framed in terms of those lovely authors because that's what's on my mind...

Framing concerns

With both Gregg & Weeks, I share a lot of political/practical concerns/opinions:

  • over-prioritization of work (to the detriment of other aspects of life. Family seems most important in the press and maybe to Gregg. Weeks also highlights importance of having time for "what we will")
  • precarity of work is commonplace (and likewise unemployment and underemployment)
  • that precarity (and under/un employment) creates an additional overhead of always needing to be networking, getting ready for the next thing
  • the camaraderie among colleagues can be difficult to negotiate -- on the one hand its the only social interaction many people get outside of home. on the other hand, what is up with this mixing of "friends" and "colleagues" on facebook and elsewhere
  • workloads are excessive
  • wages for workers are (too) low

At the specific level (accounts of work, email, etc.), there are a lot of resonances between my interview data and Gregg's interview data. Things, like:

  • people over-work for their immediate team / a sense of obligation to immediate co-workers more than due to threats from management/bosses
    • this is important for political stances. The traditional labor movement/union ideology doesn't speak to these experiences well.
  • affective experience of 'constant connectivity' is described as compulsive, uncontrollable, obsessive
  • negotiating email is hard and people are concerned about things like: over cc-ing, sending too many, whether they or others are avoiding face to face conversation, whether email creates more work

But, big picture, now I'm wondering so.. what? What next? What am I researching that's more than pointing to a series of encounters with technology and work?


Weeks nicely articulates that its not so much perplexing that people are "resigned" to a current state of affairs that involves low pay, under/un/precarious employment, and excessive overworking. Rather it's perplexing that people are seemingly neither resigned, nor questioning/concerned. Instead, there is a seemingly pervasive "willingness to live for work." Big picture, I think this is another question for me right now, too.

  • What is it about work that makes people willing to let it completely dominate their lives?
  • And for whom is work central? For whom is it not?

I realize that with my plan to study long-distance hikers, I also have a population that is interesting because at least some portion of them aren't living the typical model of an American life: 40-hour work week, 2 weeks of vacation a year, and devotion to a career. Some are/could be -- like they are retired or they are kids between high school and college, etc. But, at least some portion of people turn hiking into their career. Some other group of them work to save up funding for a 6 month vacation once every couple of years... etc...

Technology's role?

I've often felt like technology serves as a thing to point to, a sort of scape goat for what I tend to see as broader social concerns and frustrations with work/life/family, etc.

Steve Barley has a lovely paper about email as a oft-invoked reason for overload; however, he finds that it is not correlated with stress/overload. Instead, it's such a good symbol/figure, that it distracts people from facing/recognizing the actual/more likely sources of stress. Smartphones are good figures for work-life-balance issues, too. I have long felt like the problematization of smartphones distracts/serves as a scapegoat for other issues.

  • What is it about mobile ICTs? And what are the "real"/other problems?

I never know what to make sense of suggestions about the "impacts" of new technologies. Gregg points to Whyte & Mills studies of work to note that the extended workday is nothing new (yay!) and this was really nice to see. Looking back to studies like these, which I'm not all that familiar with, should likely help me think about this history question further.

However, I just can't decide what I think about Gregg’s suggestion that new technologies make it easier for /everyone/ to be "driven to work" outside of work, "not just leaders and managers" (which Whyte & Mills reported on). My best grasp of history is just my own relatively short life experience. But certainly my mom, a teacher, and my dad a salesman, brought lots of work home in the 1980s without the aid of any new media technologies. Mom was often working on freaking triplicate carbon copy forms. Paper has (always?) been portable. I'm really confused about what is different, today.

  • Is work really changing that much in response to tools?
  • Or are the tools of work just changing? (And becoming scapegoats for a work that is simultaneously changing?)
  • Maybe it was a big deal to bring a dictaphone home for people in Whyte's study, and certainly that object lets them do tasks at home that they couldn't do without it. But, were they not working at an earlier point in time, simply sans-dictaphone? With pen, paper and a snifter of brandy in the study? I don't really know, but I obviously have my own assumptions ;)

In studying technology, this always feels like a big struggle... deciding how to articulate what is "new" about the contemporary moment. I'm usually inclined to say nothing, but that's not any more helpful than saying everything is new. I don't feel good about drawing lines in either the history of technology or the history of work.

  • What is new?

It seems like there is something particularly personal/mobile/intimate with an object like a smartphone that fits in a pocket, goes everywhere -- bedroom, bathroom, boardroom... But it's not this alone, this coupled with what -- communication? entertainment? photography? Is it about the multi-functionality? I am not sure...

  • Gregg terms presence bleed the mixing of work/life that comes along with online (and importantly mobile) technologies -- friending colleagues, twittering about research, emailing from bed, etc.

Identity & stories

In Gregg's book, there is a lot of history that is referred to, but not made explicit. She says, e.g. "Professional work generates...pleasure and accomplishment that rival the markers of identity favored in previous historical formations." I don't know this history, and am left wondering:

  • What were these markers?
  • What were these historical formations?

Weeks draws much attention to the role of a pervasive "work ethic" in shaping attitudes, drawing on The Protestant Ethic for historical framing

  • What other similar analyses (besides Weber) exist?

In one of the three families I've spent time with so far, both parents are working really long hours + have a significant commute, and Mom, especially, seems really tired all the time. She fell asleep on the sofa on almost every single one of my visits to their house. In her position, I would be going crazy, and looking hard for a way out -- a new job, a different career, something. In the final interview, we talked about some specific frustrations with things like not getting to do a particular family activity because of work obligations, etc.

But, then her framing story, her big picture assessment of life satisfaction, both work and family, was that she feels incredibly lucky and she has an amazing life and there is nothing she wants to change. I am so perplexed by what seems perfect about this life, and how it seems that things aren't open to and don't need to be changed. It seems like the ability to tell a big picture story of happiness, luck and perfection is really helpful for making this assessment.

What are people's stories of their life? Their work? Their family? Their technology?

  • How do these stories make sense? What are their scales?
  • Frictions and alignments across stories?
  • Frictions and alignments across stories and little moments of living life?

There seems to be an un-questioning of work's domination in life. It is not that anyone would say it is "the most important thing" and people certainly bring their kids up as the things that give them the "most satisfaction" in life, but the devotion of time and energy disproportionately to work activities is somehow a non-issue.

  • What is it that makes work unquestionable?

Gregg, by way of partial explanation for such a question, points to the way that paid employment is socially/culturally important. As she puts it, wage labor is "the most compelling demonstration of virtue, accomplishment, and self-identity that society makes available" (p. xi). And, as I said above, Weeks puts a lot of emphasis on the pervasiveness of a certain (historically-‘protestant’) 'work ethic.'

  • How/where/when is this ethic invoked/reproduced/refigured today? Aren't there other stories out there, too?
  • How does technology/media fit into this story? Is technology just on a side-stage, another piece of material that reproduces stories/values/ethics?

And then the little stories about what’s happening in the moment matter, too -- like I interpret a little boy's consistently bad behavior -- crying, screaming, hitting his little sister, dumping his plate of food on the table, flinging yogurt at his mom with a spoon -- as "attention seeking behaviors" (thanks to my mom, the kindergarten & preschool special ed teacher). I see them as learned because in my view he is reinforced/rewarded/gets what he wants when he does these things. But, over the course of my fieldwork, and in the final interviews, I found out this little boy's mom didn't see them that way at all. No, for her they were just manifestations of him being "such a boy" -- boys are destructive and angry by nature. Suddenly everyone's actions around the house, and non-concern for the little boy's behavior, seemed completely reasonable. I'm not really sure where to go with this, but, anyway, another example of a story that really impacted my understanding of what I was observing...


I see you're using Melissa Gregg's book, which draws on several conversations, including a marxist-feminist debate about labour, as well as feminist and psychoanalytic writing about affect. You could, of course, trace this back as fas as you like (eg to Marx and Keynes; to Heidi Hartmann, Rosemary Hennessy, and recent materialist feminisms).

1) Consider this much-quoted passage from The German Ideology:

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

2) Think about models of self (and other). I think your work/life questions map in some obvious ways onto the long history of private/public constructions, and the related constructions of labour. In addition, there are models of self in specific historical contexts that beg to be picked up for discussion here. Look at work on the clock and models of temporality and self-management; and later "industrial" constructions of self (eg The Human Motor, Anson Rabinbach) and Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines.