Shadow Work

Which technology do you feel really saves you time? It’s often said that in the 20th Century, the washing machine helped transform women’s role in the home. Yet have all domestic technologies done the same for us? One of my pet peeves is the washing machine’s white-good cousin, the dishwasher. On a good day, my dishwasher will clean about 60% of the items fairly well on a bad day it requires declogging, another rinse, or just a manual clean of the whole inventory. With such technologies we don’t tend to think of these hidden costs: the time it takes to load the dishwasher, making sure you rinse dishes, put them in correctly, that you feed it salt, use the right detergent, etc. The effort I’m putting in to serve the dishwasher is called shadow work, a term coined by Ivan Illich in his essay of the same name in 1981.

Ivan Illich defines it as the

‘…unpaid work which an industrial society demands as a necessary complement to the production of goods and services’.

Contrast this to a subsistence economy where work is defined as that which is done for the necessity of survival: hunting for food, building shelters etc. Illich’s argument is that in our society, shadow work should be recognised.

This holiday season I’ve been becoming more familiar with the idea of shadow work and have been realising that the term is a useful one to describe all the mundane extra activities we have to do, but for which we get little or no credit: doing my taxes, reclaiming expenses from my employer and fixing broken cupboards and other DIY chores that have built up during the working week to name a few.

If, like me, you live in an industrialised society where the norm is a wage-paying existence, shadow work is a hard concept to get your head around. Yet it’s an increasing trend that, to exist in this economy, we must devote an increasing amount of our time to unpaid work for which we get no credit or benefit. Is it for your benefit that there are now more self-checkout aisles than staffed ones where the work is done for you? We accept these so-called modernisations as progression until one considers that our jobs now include checkout assistant, grocery bagger, self-help coach, tax consultant, accountant, the list goes on.

If this trend of self-ism is indeed on the rise, what can be done to salvage our hard earned free time? Wasn’t greater automation and AI meant to make us less busy? In what ways is AI starting to reduce Shadow Work?