May 22, 2014

The Algorithms of Busyness

Category: Digital Citizenship
3 screenshots of busy iphone calendar agendas
During the past week, I have been busy. I know this because my phone tells me so. Each night, before I go to bed, I check my schedule for the next day — seeing where I need to be, what time, any student meetings I’ve scheduled, and any notes I’ve made for my classes. That sentence makes it sound like an arduous process, but it’s little more than a swipe on my iPhone’s home screen to see what’s scheduled and a mental calculation about the level of formality my attire will require. Lately, my phone — I imagine it’s Siri — tells me that I have a “busy” day the next day. Maybe you’ve seen something like this as well?
To an extent, my phone is right: between end-of-the-year teaching requirements, writing, and various other responsibilities, my days can feel packed. And, at the same time, it’s a bit presumptuous isn’t it? Just who the hell is my phone to tell me if I’m a busy person or not?
As silly as that sounds, I think that my phone’s intrusive announcements are an important aspect of digital culture for us to consider: at some point in the product development, a group of engineers had to calibrate an algorithm for when a phone labels its user as “busy” or not busy. Is it based on the number of meetings booked? The number of hours blocked off? Is it based on comparison to other days of more lackadaisical scheduling? I don’t know (and a few half-hearted Internet searches haven’t yielded an answer). 
Regardless, it is important to recognize that this programming decision — like all programming decisions — is a subjective, human one. Somebody decided the constraints of business for phone users. This person or team of people mediates how my time is viewed and valued. My most productive days (often Wednesdays this past semester) are days that are meeting and teaching free when I can help it. On these days, I see the beautiful empty landscape on my calendar of a day for writing and reading — lately the necessary parts of academic life I need to focus on. These aren’t days that are considered “busy” by my phone and yet, I can most clearly measure the kinds of professional progress I make on these days in comparison to those my phone labels as busy. 
Business and Being “Full”
Recently, a colleague and friend here at Colorado State University, Tara Opsal, shared an article with her Facebook friends called, “You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are.” In particular, I took away from the text the notion that feeling busy is often a part of unfocused use of time. Knowing I have lots of work and feeling overwhelmed and replying to a few emails, it turns out, makes you feel busy and stuck in a rut. 
Meeting recently, Tara and I identified that we have a mutual reluctance to tell our colleagues how busy we are: it is often a contest of one-upsmanship when playing the “I’m so busy” game. In particular, when working in the privileged spaces of academia, it feels important to acknowledge that the stuff that I’m busy doing is work I generally love. 
Tara said that, lately, she’s been saying that her schedule is “very full” when looking at schedules and asked how she is doing. It is a simple linguistic shift away from the B-word and it is an illuminating one. Fullness connotes contentment in an otherwise running-to-stay-in-place world of business. 
And while I realize that we are socialized (and socializing youth) to fit into the “busy” world of shape shifting productivity, a sense of mindfulness of one’s time is vital. Which is why it is so irksome that my phone intrudes on a vernacular of “fullness.” When machines dictate our dispositions toward labor and work, how do we reconcile contradictions? Why is my sense of fulfillment with my work contested by the scheduling algorithm of my iPhone?
Banner image: Screen shots of Antero Garcia’s phone messages