Shadow Work — The Maelstrom That is Pulling Our Digital Selves Under

Jun 29, 2018 · 3 min read

Even with today’s abundance of organising and productivity tools — and who of us does not have at least one todo-list on their laptop or a meditation app on their phone — we never seem to truly catch up, neither with our office’s latest high-priority project, nor with the stack of jumbled letters and documents at home.

Instead of digitisation and automatisation supposedly freeing people up for more important tasks and helping them work more efficiently and effectively, we cannot shake the feeling that work-hours have become longer, and the chores and duties of everyday life more lengthy and frustrating. So, what gives?

For one, it is the shadow of self-service — or to put it more bluntly ‘no service at all’- that has cast itself over our work and private lives. Nowadays, we scan and pack our own shopping, book our own holidays packages, we even do our own medical research so we can tell our doctor exactly what we think is wrong with us. As a consequence, we end up doing lots of additional work, and all of this without any pay. In short, we are doing shadow work.

The definition of shadow work (not be confused with its more esoteric namesake) can be summarised as follows: It is involuntary, unpaid labour, performed by the members of a wage-based economy. Such work can entail anything from bagging your own groceries to filing your taxes online.

The term itself was coined around forty years ago by the Austrian philosopher, cleric and radical social critic Ivan Illich. Since its first mention in the early eighties shadow work has crept into almost every aspect of modern life, especially our digital one.

We are bombarded by a string of never-ending e-mails and text messages, constant requests to take customer surveys, and let us not forget those annoying software updates, which always seem to interrupt our work at the most inconvenient moment. This flood of attention seekers is steadily ramping up the burden of shadow work for all whose lives revolve around digital technology. And let us be honest: By today’s standards this applies to almost everyone!

Social media platforms, most famously — or infamously — facebook, are another creator of involuntary work. By our incessant posting and liking we are not only using its services as a social platform, but we are also feeding it valuable information. And in today’s world, information is power! Consequentially, companies have taken to mining for it like a natural resource.

We are providing social media with data for free and on our own time. As seen in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, social media collects our data and sells it to companies, who in turn use it for targeted advertising based on personal preferences.

The constant stream of grass root amazon reviews we are more than willing to provide (sometimes with high entertainment value) is another means for companies to harvest data. It is indeed rather flattering for one’s ego to get the opportunity to announce your personal opinions to the world wide web. As a result, there is no lack of amateur critics.

Nowadays, our existence has transcended the physical realm into the digital. We have a ‘digital body’ next to our physical one, which contains all the information we put online. Apart from companies (ab-)using the information we readily hand them, our digital existence also leaves us vulnerable to the stealing of our data, from our credit card information to our twitter passwords.

To make a long story short, modern digital society has created a sea of information. Whereas companies are sitting comfortably in their fishing trawlers, us regular people are on the verge of drowning.

So let us take some longtime-overdue swimming lessons: Be mindful of the content you are putting online. Sometimes it is better — and definitely more enjoyable — to share things with your friends in person rather than on social media. Declare bedrooms and dinner tables phone-free zones. Do not answer e-mails before or after work hours. Take a break from social media and go outside, where the things you can like are live and in 3D. All such measures can be our life rings. Moreover, most of these life rings can be shared with each other.

Originally published on by Nina Feurer

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