A few weeks before Christmas, an impish chart appeared on the Bank of England’s unofficial blog. It compared plunging productivity with the soaring shipments of smartphones. Typical productivity growth in advanced economies had hovered steadily around 1 per cent a year for several decades, but has on average been negative since 2007. That was the year the iPhone started to ship.
Nobody really believes that the iPhone caused the productivity slowdown — a more obvious culprit would be the global financial crisis — but it is hard to find people who think that their phones are an unalloyed blessing. If in 1968 an economist or computer scientist had been told that 50 years later we would all be carrying wirelessly networked supercomputers in our pockets, he or she would have been staggered at the potential. I doubt they would have realised quite how much time we would spend liking Instagram posts, playing Pokémon Go and sending each other digital interruptions.
The costs of this distraction are starting to become apparent. I wrote recently about the research of Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine. Prof Mark argues that reorientating yourself after an interruption tends to take between 20 and 25 minutes. We all know how a moment’s inattention can turn into a clickhole of distractions. She also points out that once we get used to being interrupted by others, we start interrupting ourselves, twitchily checking email or social media in the hope something interesting might turn up.
Yet digital devices slow us down in subtler ways, too. Microsoft Office may be as much a drag on productivity as Candy Crush Saga. To see why, consider Adam Smith’s argument that economic progress was built on a foundation of the division of labour. His most celebrated example was a simple pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points” and 10 men together made nearly 50,000 pins a day.
In another example — the making of a woollen coat — Smith emphasises that the division of labour allows us to use machines, even “that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool”.
The shepherd has the perfect tool for a focused task. That tool needs countless other focused specialists: the bricklayer who built the foundry; the collier who mined fuel; the smith who forged the blades. It is a reinforcing spiral: the division of labour lets us build new machines, while machines work best when jobs have been divided into one small task after another.
The rise of the computer complicates this story. Computers can certainly continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists.
In a modern office there are no specialist typists; we all need to be able to pick our way around a keyboard. PowerPoint has made amateur slide designers of everyone. Once a slide would be produced by a professional, because no one else had the necessary equipment or training. Now anyone can have a go — and they do.
Well-paid middle managers with no design skills take far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at. They also file their own expenses, book their own travel and, for that matter, do their own shopping in the supermarket. On a bill-by-the-minute basis none of this makes sense.
Why do we behave like this? It is partly a matter of pride: since everyone has the tools to build a website or lay out a book, it feels a little feeble to hand the job over to a professional. And it is partly bad organisational design: sacking the administrative assistants and telling senior staff to do their own expenses can look, superficially, like a cost saving.
But it is also that some of these jobs are a pleasant diversion from the key task at hand. Even filling out expenses may be soothing to some, and designing your own PowerPoint presentation can be quite fun for the presenter, if not for the hapless audience.
Smith worried that repetitive work would make us “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. That risk remains. Technology can unbundle tasks, leaving human workers with grimly narrow duties.
But for other workers, general-purpose computers push back against Smith’s concern. Design a pretty graph, search the internet for cartoons for a presentation, use a price-comparison site to book some travel, craft an eloquent post on LinkedIn, and office life starts to look mildly entertaining — even if there isn’t much time left to do the jobs for which we’re paid. Setting games and social media aside, there are plenty of ways for workers to use their computers to do their jobs less efficiently while having more fun, perhaps without even meaning to.
I suspect this is but a small part of the productivity slowdown. And I feel ambivalent about it. A day full of distractions is rarely satisfying. On the other hand, I would not wish to spend each hour sharpening 5,000 pins.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 January 2018.