2021iv9, Friday: (Not) getting things done.

Has productivity fallen because we’re all doing things we’re just not that good at? And how tech perverts language.

Short thought: Once upon a time, the BBC had a specialist expenses unit in Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, journalists run up some fairly bizarre expenses from time to time, and the unit could handle all of them. Legend was you could send them a photo of a receipt written in Coptic and scratched in the whitewash on the wall of a house, and someone in the team would dredge up a memory of John Simpson having done something similar in the 80s and find a way to process it.

This, of course, cost money. So it was shut down about 20 years ago, outsourced and standardised, and therefore became entirely useless. The result: a lot of stressed reporters spending foolish amounts of time trying to work out how to file expenses instead of, you know, reporting.

This came to mind when reading a piece from Tim Harford earlier this week. Tim (whose praise I’ve sung before), wonders whether the lack of productivity increases is because all of us “knowledge workers” are doing loads of stuff we’re not actually that good at, rather than the things we’re in fact meant to apply our finely-honed brains to; and because the organisations we work within tend not to have terribly good systems for managing workflow.

One culprit, of course, is email. I shudder when I see someone’s phone screen with a little red spot saying they’ve got 32,483 unread messages. As someone who – while a long way off Inbox Zero – nonetheless reads, acts upon, defers or deletes everything as soon as it comes in, it makes me physically ill. But I understand how it happens: the sheer amount of stuff hitting this single channel can rapidly become unmanageable. And I don’t think things like Slack are an answer: it’s just yet another inbox, for the most part.

If I’m honest, I think the main problem is that there’s an organisational equivalent of the Dunbar number. The Dunbar number is the idea that the practical optimum number of people in a community (whether physical or virtual) is about 150 – the number where there are enough people to have a range of views, skills and experiences, but where you can still know everyone. For work, though, I think it’s a lot smaller: maybe a dozen at most. Yet most people who work in anything but the smallest of business are blizzarded with information about a range of things that simply aren’t really that important to them.

It’s one of the reasons I find the idea of one day going back to a paycheque far less appealing than I thought it would, before I jumped into this world of self-employed advocacy. These days, I’m part of a Chambers which only just goes into 3 digits. But usually I’m working in teams which max out at half a dozen: solicitors, client and maybe one other barrister. Yes, I’ve got several such projects going at any one time; but still, my signal-to-noise ratio across all forms of communication is far, far higher than it used to be.

I’m sure some businesses get this right. Information that people need when they need it goes in intranets or elsewhere, rather than in emails. Announcements are corralled into groups, rather than put out willy-nilly. CC and BCC are ruthlessly suppressed. Meetings – and the vast paper-counts that have to be read first – are pruned.

It’s just that I never worked in one. One reason why I’d hate to go back.


Someone is right on the internet: Thinking about the Dunbar number makes me recall something I read by John Naughton a few weeks ago. Back in the days when I was an investigator, it was always great to discover that a target was promiscuous when it came to Facebook friends. (Of course, these days Facebook isn’t anywhere near as useful a tool for social network mapping, but it still has its place – certainly for people over 25 or so.) The reason being, it was often possible to back into someone’s friend lists via one of their other friends, whose privacy settings might well be less rigorously enforced.

Despite being something of a geek, I’ve long loathed this use of the word “friend”, as I do the word “like”. (I got exceptionally pissed off when Twitter dropped stars in favour of likes. I used to star things as a way of denoting them as worth hanging onto. Much of that I didn’t “like” in any meaningful way.)

But John put it better than me:

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

Spot on.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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