AI in the workplace and a defense of busy work

In the performance Disconnection‘s dystopian workplace – is there another kind? – employees spend their days studying sets of numbers floating on their screens. When a cluster of numbers makes an employee feel unsettled, the employee clicks on it to throw it away. The value of the work is not clear to the workers, who are only told that they are “refining macro data files,” but the job is nevertheless satisfying to complete. When a protagonist, Helly, throws enough bad numbers, she is greeted with a Game Boy-like animation of the company’s founder and CEO telling her, “I love you.”

The task is a parody of corporate busy work, the time-consuming, mind-numbing, manager-friendly chores that fill our days. Most jobs involve some degree of busy work, and this is generally maligned. A Microsoft WorkLab survey published last January found that 85 percent of respondents said they hoped artificial intelligence tools would automate all busy work, freeing up time for more fulfilling activities, such as “interacting with others.” ‘. These respondents have clearly never had a five-hour conversation about a three-word headline, but I digress: busy work is portrayed as the enemy of innovation, and AI is portrayed as the solution. “Eliminating busy work” has become “making the world a better place” for AI advocates. But should it?

When I surveyed my community about their attitudes toward busy work—a ploy to find out what some of my loved ones actually do for work—most saw at least the value, if not joy, of occasional busy work. A web designer told me that busy work is “productive procrastination” if she avoids more complex tasks. A woman in sales and marketing said she appreciates the solitude of routine tasks, retreating to spreadsheets “when everyone is annoying and I’m busy and my bullshit meter is full.” A senior research program manager at a nonprofit explained that she appreciates how data cleaning (searching a data set for errors, duplicates, and other problems) creates an intimacy with the information she processes. Manually cleaning up data makes the phenomena she studies less abstract: “It connects you to a different way of working or being, or creates opportunities to look at things in a different way.”

Completing a spreadsheet is perhaps the closest we get to spending our free time

Many find busy work merely peaceful. I’ve enjoyed it since I was a sales associate at a major home furnishings retailer. There I was often tasked with refolding presentation towels that had already been perfectly folded and stored on the shelves earlier in the day. This was busywork in its purest form. The tasks themselves were not essential at all. We did this because our manager believed that customers found the full attention of inactive employees uncomfortable. He was right: when I stood in my section of the store and smiled at every customer who walked in, we both felt uncomfortable and quickly moved on. However, when I looked up from my folds to quickly greet a customer before returning to my performative folds, they almost always asked me a question.

And there was nothing stressful about the job. It allowed me to regain my sanity in between the stressful moments of talking to customers. When it was raining outside and few customers came in, I would stand by the window to do the folding. I did my fake work and watched the weather and listened to the soundtrack of the store’s mellow favorites, and it was heaven. My colleagues felt it too, and when we were all in the zone, no one wanted to say anything. We smiled serenely at each other as we performatively dusted dustless lamps and shined rows of already gleaming drawer knobs.

I contacted Gloria Mark, a psychologist and author of Attention Span: A groundbreaking way to restore balance, happiness and productivity, to ask her how employees might fare in a society after a busy day at work. I was especially interested to hear from Mark because she co-authored a 2014 study by researchers at UC Irvine and Microsoft that found that people are happiest when they are doing routine work and most stressed when they are focused do work.

Mark told me that my questions about an AI future raise a specific concern for her. “If people are saddled with all this complex work because we are freed from lighter work, it can lead to burnout,” she says. “We have very limited cognitive resources, and you can’t just do all this hard work without relieving yourself. And in a way, I think that busy work, even though it may not make us happy, is a way to alleviate this cognitive load, because we’re doing things that you don’t have to think about much.” (One lawyer told me that his ilk call the time-consuming task of reviewing documents “chillable billables.”)

Ideally, we would decompress from focused interludes with more obviously relaxing ‘work’ such as puzzling or knitting. But taking a break all day to knit isn’t realistic for most workers. Completing a spreadsheet is perhaps the closest we get to spending our free time.

“Those two extra hours cannot be replaced by real mental activity”

Danielle Li, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of an article titled “Generative AI at Work,” says she finds busy work soothing, in part because it catapults her into a “flow state,” but also because it allows her to continue her work while calming her mind. Li acknowledges that this is not necessarily ‘good’. “If I didn’t feel the need to work all the time, I wouldn’t appreciate that particular aspect of busy work. With busy work, I can say to myself, “Yes, I am working.” “You deserve your place in this world.” But you’re not actually trying that hard. ”

Li said she would celebrate AI tools that would reduce three working hours to one hour if she could then use one and a half of the two hours she saved to, for example, take a walk or surf the Internet, and only use the remaining thirty minutes for concentrated work – if, in other words, the automation of busy work would allow managers and workers to abandon the dark pretense that we are working all the time. “Those two extra hours cannot be replaced by real mental activity,” she added.

I’ve also wondered if I really have the capacity to devote another hour to world-changing thoughts every day. During my towel-folding era, I certainly harbored fantasies about the great things I would do when freed from the busy cycle of work. I would think, create and innovate at the same time A beautiful mind‘S score grew. In practice, on an average workday, I can only think intently for about 0.003 seconds, whether it’s busy or not. (My ability to watch Reels of Dogs surfing is infinite.)

I’m not suggesting that I want to spend the remaining 57,599.997 waking seconds of my day doing the Minesweeper-such as number dumping Disconnection. But for an hour in the afternoon, when all my body resources have been diverted from the brain to the stomach to digest the meatball marinara sub I had for lunch? While there is a light rain outside and Spotify serves me atmospheric lullabies? No AI tool can give me that much peace of mind.

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