How to keep our ‘shadow work’ manageable

shadow work

These days, we take care of nearly everything ourselves online. At first it seemed to save time, but we’re not so sure now. Journalist Anneke Bots finds out how to keep all that ‘shadow work’, as it’s known, manageable.

Traveling through the wind and rain for that new pair of sneakers used to be a requirement, if we wanted them right away. These days, you don’t even have to get up from your comfy chair to get what you want. No more worries about opening hours, because online stores are open 24/7. A quick search on Google for the best deal, enter your credit card number, and voilà: with a little luck, your package might even arrive that evening or the next morning.

Travel agency brochures

It’s actually bizarre how quickly we’ve become accustomed to this new reality, and have so easily forgotten how it used to be. Anyone in their 20s has probably never seen the inside of a bank or a travel agency. The latter being places where staff would help you from behind a counter, sending you home with a stack of glossy travel brochures for exotic resorts to peruse, and then you’d come back another day so they could book your entire vacation for you. And then there was the gas station attendant who didn’t just fill your car’s gas tank, but also checked your oil and, before you realized it, had cleaned your windshield. Even the airline staff who check you in for your flight are becoming a rarer breed. You choose your seat on the plane from your computer, just like your seat for a movie or concert. No more lines at the box office, because you have already printed out your ticket. Or you can show them an image on your smartphone — it doesn’t get much easier than that.

Doing this all yourself is definitely easy, but it can also be time-consuming. We have taken on all sorts of tasks that used to be done for us. In between everything else on our plates, we have also become part-time meter readers, bank tellers, travel agents and gas station attendants; it wasn’t all that long ago that these were very common professions where people earned their living.

This phenomenon is also referred to as ‘shadow work’: a parallel economy where companies shift the responsibility for performing their services, which you expect them to provide, to the customer. What this essentially means is that on top of our normal jobs, we are also doing other people’s work for them. This eats up your free time. In his book The organized mind, psychologist Daniel Levitin writes that ‘the promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and to have more leisure time.

It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. […] Shadow work is responsible for taking away a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century’.

  • Read the full story ‘Shadow society’ in Issue 33.

Text Anneke Bots