John Maynard Keynes believed that labor-saving technology would eventually create a utopia of leisure. (The date he had in mind was 2030.) Relieved of our narrow, demeaning jobs, we’d enjoy a wealth of pastimes. Marx, earlier, had a similar dream: “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Sign me up!
Ian Bogost suggests that what modern technology might be creating is a kind of parody of that utopia — a Rube Goldbergian treadmill of small, neverending tasks. The regulation of online production is turning us into jittery information-processing generalists, jacks of all media trades. We’re all “hyperemployed,” whether we’re earning a decent wage or not:
Increasingly, online life in general feels like this. The endless, constant flow of email, notifications, direct messages, favorites, invitations. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers, Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your blog, on your YouTube channel … New messages in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email. Always more email. …
Even if there is more than a modicum of exploitation at work in the hyperemployment economy, the despair and overwhelm of online life doesn’t derive from that exploitation—not directly anyway. Rather, it’s a type of exhaustion cut of the same sort that afflicts the underemployed as well … The economic impact of hyperemployment is obviously different from that of underemployment, but some of the same emotional toll imbues both: a sense of inundation, of being trounced by demands whose completion yields only their continuance, and a feeling of resignation that any other scenario is likely or even possible.
They gave us utopia, but they forgot the fishing rods.