AI in the workplace, and a defense of busywork

In the show Severance’s dystopian workplace — is there any other kind? — employees spend their days studying arrays of numbers bobbing on their screens. Whenever a cluster of numbers makes an employee feel unsettled, the employee clicks on it to discard it. The work’s value is not apparent to the workers, who are told only that they are “refining macro-data files,” but the job is nevertheless satisfying to complete. When one protagonist, Helly, tosses enough bad numbers, she is greeted with a Game Boy-esque animation of the company’s founder and CEO, who tells her, “I love you.”

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

When I polled my community about their attitudes toward busywork — a ruse to figure out what some of my nearest and dearests actually do for work — most at least saw value, if not joy, in occasional busywork. A web designer told me busywork serves as “productive procrastination” when she’s avoiding more complex tasks. A woman in sales and marketing said she values the solitude of rote tasks, and retreats into spreadsheets “when everybody’s annoying and I’m peopled out and my bullshit meter is filled.” A senior research program manager at a nonprofit explained that she values how data cleaning — combing through a dataset for errors, duplicates, and other issues — creates an intimacy with the information she’s processing. Cleaning data manually makes the phenomena she studies less abstract: “It connects you to a different way of working or being, or creates opportunities to see things in a different way.”

Populating a spreadsheet may be the closest thing we have to leisure

Many merely find busywork peaceful. I’ve enjoyed it since I was a sales associate at a major home furnishings retailer. There, I was often instructed to refold display towels that had already been perfectly folded and stowed on shelves earlier in the day. This was busywork in its purest form. The tasks themselves were totally nonessential. We did them because our manager believed that customers found the full attention of idle associates discomfiting. He was right: if I stood in my section of the store, smiling at each customer that came in, we both became uncomfortable and they moved on quickly. If, however, I looked up from my folding to greet a customer quickly before returning to my performative folding, they almost always asked me a question.

And there was nothing stressful about the work. It allowed me to recover my wits in between high-stress incidences of talking to customers. When it was raining outside and few customers came in, I would position myself by the window to do my refolding. I did my fake work and watched the weather and listened to the store’s soft favorites soundtrack, and it was heaven. My colleagues felt it, too, and when we were all in the zone, nobody would speak. We would smile serenely at each other while performatively dusting dustless lamps and shining rows of already gleaming drawer pulls.

I reached out to Gloria Mark, a psychologist and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, to ask her how workers might fare in a post-busywork society. I was particularly interested to hear from Mark because she was a co-author of a 2014 study by researchers from UC Irvine and Microsoft which found that people are happiest when doing rote work and most stressed when doing focused work.

Mark told me my questions about an AI future raise a specific concern for her. “If people are going to be saddled with all this complex work because we’re being relieved of doing lighter work, then this can lead to burnout,” she said. “We just have very limited cognitive resources, and you can’t just do all this tough work without relieving yourself. And in a sense, I think busywork, even though it may not make us happy, is a way to relieve this cognitive load, because we’re doing things that don’t require a lot of thought.” (A lawyer told me that his kind refer to the time-consuming task of document review as “chillable billables.”)

Ideally, we would decompress from focused interludes with more obviously relaxing rote “work” such as puzzles or knitting. But pausing throughout the day to knit is not realistic for most workers. Populating a spreadsheet may be the closest thing we have to leisure.

“Those two extra hours can’t get replaced with genuine mental activity”

Danielle Li, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a co-author of a paper called “Generative AI at Work,” said she finds busywork soothing in part because it catapults her into a “flow state,” but also because it allows her to keep up the performance of work while resting her mind. Li acknowledges that this is not “good,” per se. “If I didn’t feel the need to be working all the time, then I wouldn’t value that particular aspect of busywork. With busywork I can tell myself, ‘Yay, I’m working.’ ‘You’re earning your place in this world.’ But you’re not actually trying that hard.’”

Li said she would celebrate AI tools reducing three hours of labor to one hour of labor if she could then use one and a half of the two hours she’d saved to, say, take a walk or browse the internet, and only the remaining thirty minutes for focused work — if, in other words, the automation of busywork allowed managers and workers to drop the dark pretense that we are working all the time. “Those two extra hours can’t get replaced with genuine mental activity,” she added.

I have also wondered whether I really have the capacity for even one more hour of world-changing thought each day. During my towel-folding era, I certainly harbored fantasies of the grand things I would be doing if freed from the busywork coil. I would think and create and innovate while A Beautiful Mind’s score swelled. In practice, I only manage about 0.003 seconds of focused thought on an average workday, busywork or no. (My capacity for watching Reels of dogs surfing is infinite.)

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

By 111 Tech

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