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When 'self-service' means 'no service'

Posting in Technology

Technology has enabled us to do more in less time, but the business model behind it is increasingly forcing the customer to do the work that's left. The result? Fatigue.

Technology has always promised that it would help us do more in less time. But it turns out that it's quite the opposite.

A New York Times op/ed from this weekend notes the emergence of "shadow work," the tasks you do thanks to enabling technology and a business mandate to cut costs.

Use the self-checkout lane recently at the grocery store?

How about the check-in kiosk at the airport?

It goes on and on.

Harvard Magazine editor Craig Lambert explains why America's "service economy" is disappearing as Internet-enabled devices bring more and more services, ironically, to the average consumer:

There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

But the real kicker is that all this "shadow work" is making us tired. Exceedingly tired. It's work that we used to pay people to do for us, but now that we're doing it in every aspect of our lives, we -- and our brains -- are just exhausted by the end of the day. While there's much time and money saved by putting your own IKEA furniture together, you may be entirely fatigued at the end of the day -- and it has only a little to do with the physical motion of cranking a hex wrench.

Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work [New York Times]

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure