PRODUCTIVITY 24-7-2023 Why is technology not making us more productive? By Jonty Bloom

We are often told that we are in the midst of a technological revolution. That business and the world of work continue to be transformed and improved by computers, the internet, the increased speed of communication, data processing, robotics, and now – artificial intelligence.

There is only one small problem with all this – none of it seems to show up in the economic data. If all this technology really is making us all work faster and better, there is precious little evidence.

Between 1974 and 2008 the UK’s productivity – the amount of output you get per worker – grew at an annual rate of 2.3%. But between 2008 and 2020 the rate of productivity growth collapsed to around 0.5% per annum.

And in the first three months of this year, UK productivity was actually down 0.6% on a year earlier.

It is a similar picture in most other Western nations. In the US, productivity growth between 1995 and 2005 was 3.1%, but it then fell to 1.4% from 2005 to 2019. …

…the country and the businesses that can make the best and fastest use of new technology are going to win the productivity race. This, as it was with steam and electricity, seems to come down not to the technology itself but to how well you can use it, adapt it, and exploit it – in short how skilled you are.

Dame Diane sees this happening already. “There is a lot of evidence now that whatever kind of company it is, there is a growing divergence between those that can use the technology well and those that can’t.

“It seems to be that if you have highly-skilled people, you have a lot of data and you know how to use the sophisticated software, and you can change your processes, so that people can use the information, your productivity is going through the roof.

“But in the same sector of the economy there are other companies that just can’t do that.”

The technology is seemingly not the problem, and in some respects it is not the solution either. High productivity growth will come only to those that learn how to use it best. 10-3-2023 How Cal Newport rewrote the productivity gospel – by Courtney Weaver

… Newport, who has the affably square looks and slicked side parting of a Mormon missionary, doesn’t do much public speaking. For one, he doesn’t like to travel too far from his wife and three young children. For another, he does not enjoy it. “I don’t mind actually getting on the stage,” he told me. “But I just don’t like — I’m just too introverted.” On this occasion, he agreed to appear at East City Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Capitol Hill, in conversation with David Sax, a Canadian journalist who had a new book out titled The Future is Analog.

The room was packed with attendees ranging from early twentysomethings to retirees. But as Sax self-deprecatingly acknowledged to Newport: “Let’s face it, 90 per cent of the people in here are here to see you.” When Sax polled the room to confirm, about two-thirds of hands in the crowd went up.

Newport, a preternaturally upbeat millennial with a penchant for dad jokes, is an unlikely messenger. The nihilistic backlash around work post-pandemic seems primed for a more caustic style of guru. But the quiet radicalism in Newport’s books on productivity and his coping strategies for 21st-century knowledge workers have helped him sell more than two million copies in 40 languages, making him a celebrity in the field. More than 300,000 people download his Deep Questions podcast each month. His multimedia output — the podcast, a YouTube channel, a newsletter and online courses — has helped propagate his methods, acronyms and terminology, all of which are designed to challenge the performative busy work, or “hyperactive hive mind” as Newport calls it, that dominates modern office culture.

At the event, Newport and Sax held forth on a variety of topics, ranging from Zoom’s ability to translate the human experience (not well) to the future of the office (less presenteeism, more flexibility). Afterwards, more than a dozen people queued for Newport to sign copies of his books. One couple had driven three hours from Lexington, Virginia, and were set to make the return trip later that night. “I wasn’t going to miss this when I heard there’d be a live event,” the woman said. A visiting theologian from Ireland loved Newport’s book Deep Work. “You can’t write sermons if you’re distracted,” Newport told him. “I hear from so many pastors.” A middle-aged sculptor said she had come to “fan girl” about the author’s theories on slow productivity. “I guess it warms my heart, because everything I do takes for ever,” she confided.

Newport is not the first person to make a name for himself in the time-management space. As he likes to point out, the economic concepts of productivity and value-added labour date back to Adam Smith. While much of the focus in the late 20th century was on trying to get as much done in as short amount of time as possible, most of the more recent popular books on the subject have essentially argued the opposite: that the way to get more done is to do less, exemplified by bestsellers such as Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Newport’s books are part of this oeuvre, tapping into a sense of exhaustion that has surged in the wake of social media and smartphones and the evaporation of work-life boundaries. Being in a massive open-plan room with all of your co-workers makes it hard to focus. But so does being alone, tending to constant Slack notifications and email. It’s for precisely this crisis that Newport offers answers.

My first encounter with Newport’s work was on a 2018 holiday in Patagonia. My now-husband brought Deep Work along in his suitcase and confidently announced, somewhere amid the glaciers of Torres del Paine, that he had seen the light and would be approaching his work in a new way. That smugness lasted until he returned to the office.

When I relayed this story to Newport last year, he laughed. “That’s my mission: to spread temporary smugness,” he deadpanned. He had sympathy for my husband though. “It’s like with professors in the summer [telling themselves], ‘OK. Everything’s possible. I’ve got everything back under control. I’m going to simplify things.’ By mid-October, you’re just in reaction mode all the time.”

We were sitting in Newport’s study in Takoma Park on the leafy outskirts of Washington. Newport and his wife had redone it during the pandemic, painting the walls a rich shade of cobalt. Books lined the built-in shelves. Not a paper or Post-it littered the desk.

Newport came up with the idea of “deep work” during his time at MIT, when he was surrounded by “these brilliant theoreticians”. The MacArthur Genius Grant winners around him, who had solved some of the world’s biggest mathematical theorems, had the ability to concentrate deeply on a single problem or project for an extended period, he observed. According to Newport, there are certain people who are naturally good at deep working. Top theoretical computer scientists, for instance. Chess players. Mathematicians. And then there are the rest of us who lament our inability to make progress on meaningful, long-term goals or difficult projects. We tend to look away from the task at hand, reflexively refreshing our email browser, Twitter or this website.

Published in early 2016, Deep Work advised ways to increase focus, eliminate social media and cultivate boredom, which gives the mind the space for creative thinking. Many of the tips in the book trigger the same satisfaction of a top-to-bottom home reorganisation or day one of a New Year’s diet. They offer a sense of control, in this case not over clutter or self, but over time.

Neither Newport, nor, it seemed, his publisher, a Hachette imprint, were banking on big sales. Then an assistant professor, Newport had a pedigreed résumé but had struggled in the publishing world. At college and as a graduate student he’d written student advice books with punchy titles such as How to Win at College. Yet as he aged out of the demographic he was writing for, he struggled to find a broader audience. His first attempt to write for an older readership, a career guide titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You, didn’t meet expectations. For the follow-up, he was offered a lower advance.

Newport’s publisher didn’t put money into Deep Work’s publicity — opting for “a silent launch”, as he puts it — so the author decided to push it himself. He pored over a self-help book about the secrets to publishing a bestseller, then promoted his title on his blog, newsletter and any other website or podcast he could find. Week by week, sales started to climb. As of last year, it had sold more than 1.25 million copies. Following Deep Work’s success, sales for So Good They Can’t Ignore You also took off, paving the way for two further books. Digital Minimalism, published in 2019, outlines a “digital detox” to reform our content-addicted brains and 2021’s A World Without Email is a polemic.

Laurie Abkemeier, Newport’s longtime agent, told me his books had always been about the same thing: “work smarter, not harder”. The best students at his Ivy League college, Newport observed in one of his earlier works, were not the ones camped out 24-7 in the library, but those who were able to carve out time for fun and to clearly delineate between work and non-work.

More recently, he has advocated a similar principle: that it is possible to balance professional success with a family, friends and personal pursuits — and that big career decisions should be made with those other things in mind. Don’t take the time-demanding, high-on-busy-work promotion that looks good on paper, Newport advises. Take the job that allows you to support your lifestyle goals, whether travelling and seeing the world, taking summers off or hours that allow you to spend more time with family.

On days when Newport is not teaching, he likes to divide his day into two sessions. The first shift is for deep work, that requires his highest cognitive attention, and the second for work that is slightly less cognitively intense. The shifts rarely focus on the same project, a distinction that is key and allows him to make incremental progress on multiple fronts. He usually ends his day around 5pm and tries to avoid looking at email outside his normal working hours. In the morning, after dropping his kids at the school bus, he takes out his physical planner to “figure the day out”. “If I don’t do that, I lose 50 per cent of my ability to produce things,” he said.

I quizzed Newport on how to bring more “deep work” to the FT (his prescription: less Twitter; no Slack), then we walked to a nearby storefront office space that Newport had converted to a recording studio. His producer, Jesse, was already there.

They were planning to experiment with hosting live-video discussions with callers, interspersed into the traditional episode format which largely consists of Newport monologuing on a range of clickbait-y topics. (“Overcoming to-do list paralysis”; “How to organise your life with an optimised values plan”; “Four tips to becoming a more disciplined person”.) It was the first time they’d tried the tech, and Newport was dubious, if characteristically sanguine. “It might be, by the way, a whole disaster,” he remarked cheerfully.

After slipping into the bathroom to change from a polo into a dress shirt, he sat in front of the microphone to speak to the first caller, a young man who worked full-time in finance, but had recently received a scholarship to pursue a masters degree. The course was self-paced, so he’d thought he could balance it with his job and other commitments. But a couple weeks in, he was struggling.

Newport listened thoughtfully. It looked like the caller needed to take a more calendar-centric approach to his life, he said. “The résumé-centric approach is: Oh, it’d be really cool to have this degree to be really useful. It’d be really cool to have written a novel. So why don’t I do this? Oh, I want to run a marathon. That would look cool. Let me start training for a marathon.” By contrast, Newport continued, “The calendar-centric approach to your life is looking at the time you have available . . . [asking yourself] does that seem sustainable?”

The caller nodded. Newport continued: “That’s, by the way, how I approach my life. I get that exact same sinking feeling in my gut when I’m staring at my calendar and it’s not working. My wife knows this. This is what she thinks of as Monday morning syndrome: when I’m doing a weekly plan Monday morning in a period where my schedule has got too complex, I just feel terrible, because I’m forced to stare at the calendar, and it doesn’t fit. And nothing makes me more unhappy.” He paused. “We’ve got to trust that gut.”

Next on the line was a 34-year-old Greek robotics programmer calling from Silicon Valley. He’d moved to the US to get a PhD and had used Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, as a road map to excel in his career, leaning into the fast-developing software side of robotics and eventually leaving academia to work for a series of start-ups. He was now at one of the top self-driving car companies in San Francisco, had high performance reviews and was on track for promotion. He had avoided what Newport calls “the first control trap” — trying to get more autonomy over his work before he had the professional credentials to back it up. But he worried he was now falling into the second one: his job was going so well, it was hard to walk away.

“I got too excited about the performance and the promotions and the compensation and recognition that I’ve kind of become too busy,” he said. Much of his time was now spent responding to Slack messages or troubleshooting short-term problems, rather than doing the actual software engineering he enjoyed. Yet the idea of leaving now felt difficult. “I have too many responsibilities. My compensation is too good to ignore, if you will.”

Newport had two remedies: the programmer should talk to his manager about creating a better ratio between deep and shallow, or reactive, work. Next, he should think deeply about his future, imagining what his ideal life would look like at age 40 and 50 — not just in terms of his job, but as a whole. “Smell it, see it, taste it, as we like to say,” Newport told him. “Then look backwards and say: how do I get there?”

Newport was born in Houston, Texas, the son of Kim, a computer programmer, and Frank, a sociologist who would spend almost three decades as editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. The family relocated to the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey, when Cal was eight. As a kid, Newport was “prematurely old”, by his own account, interested in sports and computing but anxious to make his way into the real world. By high school, he and a friend, Michael Simmons, had started a small business called Princeton Web Solutions, offering website-building services to local companies during the dotcom boom.

Newport’s father drove them to their first client meeting, to which they wore ill-fitting department store suits and carried a spiral-bound pitch they’d had bound at Kinkos. They ended up signing a contract for about $1,000 and later outsourced the web design work to a company in India, because, in Newport’s words, he and Simmons “weren’t very good graphic designers”. When I spoke to Simmons on the phone, he said one of his lingering memories of his friend was Newport’s time on the track team where he briefly became the school’s fastest runner in the 400-metre sprint, but only by pushing himself so hard that he would throw up after every race.

Newport told me that when he and Simmons formed the company he would spend hours in Barnes & Noble trawling through business self-help books, giving him a lasting appreciation for the genre. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I see how I could make changes going forward. They’re going to bring positive things into my life,’” he said. “That feeling is super powerful.”

Unlike some other authors in the genre, such as Malcolm Gladwell, who tend not to offer explicit advice, Newport has leaned into the practical. His books are structured for ease of comprehension: Deep Work is broken into two parts: The Idea and The Rules. He is not averse to bullet points, bolding key phrases or putting definitions in shaded boxes, and he sometimes includes equations. A classic, which he used in a 2007 blog post, is:

Work accomplished = (Time spent) × (Intensity of focus)

He contrasted it with a less accurate formula, which he pointed out many students erroneously subscribe to:

Work accomplished = Time spent studying

“Here’s the problem,” Newport wrote. “Even with little breaks, there are only so many consecutive hours of work you can manage before your intensity of focus crashes (in practice, this value is probably close to 2-3 hours for most students).”

During one of our conversations, Newport told me he had recently gone down a Quentin Tarantino rabbit hole and found some parallels. “He wasn’t ashamed of genre.” Newport said he felt similarly. “My whole thing is I’ll go straight for the jugular, with, like, ‘Do this’, ‘Do that’, and ‘Here’s an acronym for our system’, but also mix it in with legitimate social critique.” Others shied away from the self-help genre, he said, because they thought it made them seem lowbrow. One easy way to solve this problem, Newport wryly observed: have a PhD in theoretical computer science from MIT.

Newport is one of several experts seeking to address some of the contradictions plaguing the professional class of knowledge workers, or as he describes them, people who “use their brain to make a living”. Henry Ford looked at “average man minutes per Model T produced”, Newport has noted, and assigned workers to assembly lines where they would operate continuously for eight hours a day. But for knowledge workers, the situation is different. Because companies have failed to figure out how to measure and value their productivity, “the fallback,” he said, “was pseudo-productivity, which was: well, let’s just use activity as a proxy for productivity”. This is a problem because prolonged intense activity actually leads to lower productivity, as well as burnout.

Many digital tools introduced in recent years have made things worse. While it may take only a moment to check an incoming email or Slack message, the momentary distraction can seriously derail your mind from the task it was working on, making it harder to refocus. A senior partner at one of the big-four consultancies who identifies as a Newport fan told me that he had watched his firm succumb to “crappy meetings with no focus, too many people, and interminable poor PowerPoint” over Zoom, where many of the participants were disengaged and busy with other tasks. All of the internal meetings only hurt the firm’s ability to serve its clients. “Our work requires DEEP thought . . . It’s what our customers pay very high fees for!” he told me. “Insights only really start flowing after 45 minutes of deep absorption.”

To counteract this, the partner said he had become a “passive resister”, blocking out three-hour meeting-free blocks for real work and pushing for any vital meetings to be compressed or put into written queries instead. Because of his seniority at the firm, he was able to get away with it. Other colleagues were not so lucky. “I genuinely think that the quality of our work is considerably lower than it was 15 [years] ago,” he said. “But people work harder, are busier and definitely more tired.”

While my husband’s attempts at implementing Deep Work may have been unsuccessful, others have credited Newport with dramatically altering their life and work, giving them the framework to evaluate a new career opportunity or supercharging their productivity. When Newport put out a note in his newsletter that I was writing an article about him, I received emails from dozens of fans from all over the world who had stumbled upon his writings or newsletter or podcast, sometimes accidentally, and had since become acolytes.

One reader told me he used to work from 10am to 8.30pm but, thanks to Newport, had found a way to now reduce his hours to between 8.30am and 4.30pm, becoming more relaxed and gaining a better sense of his priorities. Another said he used Newport’s strategies to cram an eight-week graduate-level course into the 10 days leading up to the birth of his son, allowing him to be fully present for his family that first month of his child’s life.

Thera Marie Crane, a co-editor of the Nordic Journal of African Studies and mother of four young children, reached out to me from Helsinki, saying she was taken aback by Newport’s Digital Minimalism and his description of social media as a slot machine, engineered to give us random dopamine hits and build addiction. “I was sort of raised with… you know, antipathy towards gambling and the destruction that it wreaks,” she said. “And then to realise that here’s… the same thing. Only what I’m gambling with is my life.”

I heard similar refrains from other Newport devotees who were drawn to his prescient digital detox gospel in the face of humanity’s internet gluttony. As Mike King, an angel investor and IT strategist, put it: “Our founding fathers were learning Latin. We’re watching cat videos.”

Yet even some of Newport’s biggest fans say they sometimes find his practices more aspirational than actionable. “I am so enthusiastic about the book that I actually contemplated lying about how well it’s worked for me,” Janelle Ward, a researcher in the tech space, wrote to me from the Netherlands. Last summer, she experimented with taking a “totally unplugged” weeks-long holiday to Germany’s Black Forest. “I’m determined to rewire my brain to pre-social-media levels of concentration,” she wrote in her out-of-office message, providing a link to Newport’s Deep Work. The holiday was successful, close to perfect. The transition back to work? Less so. “I feel a little bit like I did as a child returning from church camp: I just can’t seem to live up to expectations. My brain has not rewired.”

I knew what she meant. When I read A World Without Email, it brought home the extent of my own debilitating dependence on the portals I had convinced myself were vital to my work. Sure, I might not tweet constantly or spend hours trawling Facebook. But how many times was I refreshing my inbox each day? Once every six minutes? Every two? As soon as Newport named the affliction I was living with, I noticed it everywhere. Was I able to stand in line at a coffee shop for five minutes without looking at my phone? Could I go a whole Saturday without checking my email? How long would it take me to finish writing an article without an open Gmail tab taunting me in the background? Was my phone making me feel more connected and happier, or was it preventing me from focusing on anything but shallow tasks?

An obvious criticism of Newport’s ideas is that he is talking to a subset of the population that has the luxury of doing “deep work”, a privilege not afforded to those outside the knowledge sector or people juggling multiple responsibilities, such as caring and work. Another objection is that his ideas are very hard to implement. Occasionally, he’s done talks for C-suite executives, explaining the negative impact of constant office communication. The result is always the same: “No one changes anything,” Newport told me.

While Newport believes that the post-lockdown period and Zoom fatigue may finally usher in a new dawn in corporate work culture, he is aware of the difficulties. “To completely rebuild the way we collaborate . . . That’s, like, an impossible ask.” Besides, he has no interest in leading the revolution himself. “What was exciting was figuring out all those ideas together and seeing if they can, like, change the way that people understand something . . . I don’t want to go help Bristol Myers Squibb, you know, improve their email.”

Newport’s two upcoming titles — Slow Productivity and The Deep Life — are what he calls his “midlife crisis books”. The idea for the former, which is to be published next year, came from a dark night of the soul in the first year of the pandemic, when Newport failed to publish any research papers due to the “chaos” that came with trying to work from home, in lockdown with three young children, and the inability to fully collaborate with colleagues. “I’ve never published zero papers before . . . I was stressed out about it,” he told me. His follow-up, The Deep Life, will look at the many ingredients, both inside and outside of work, that make life meaningful.

There are three principles to “slow productivity”, as Newport defines it: “doing fewer things; working at a natural pace; and obsessing over quality.” Some of his favourite historical slow productivity practitioners include Galileo, who according to Newport took some 18-odd years to work out the details of his pendulum experiment, and Isaac Newton, who spent a good four years working on his initial article on gravity theory and another three to expand that article into Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

By Newton and Galileo’s standards, we are all doing just fine. The main takeaway, Newport said, was to focus on doing the important things, the things that matter to you, and that will continue to matter in the years to come. Newport is following his own advice. In the years since he began writing about productivity, he has come to re-evaluate his own professional strengths and weaknesses. “Often when I’m writing about something, I’m echoing, you know, a realisation I’ve had in my own career, or something I’ve been grappling with personally.”

He sees an eventual merging of the writing he does for a general audience with what he covers in his academic work. “My plan… is to push those worlds even closer together in the sense of, like, writing more actual academic papers on technology and society, digital ethics.”

The year he wrote Deep Work happened to be the year before he received tenure at Georgetown, a feat that required a high volume of publications in competitive academic journals. “I remember it being cognitively incredibly exhausting. It didn’t feel sustainable.” Slow Productivity is an attempt to reconcile his outsized professional ambitions with the constraints of his current life: as a parent of young children who is accomplishing some of his goals at a slower-than-he-would-like pace.

It’s OK to take your time, he’s convinced himself. “You’re up and down; busy periods, non-busy periods. Give that five years, you’ve done really important stuff. And to me that all feels more sustainable.” 26-1-2023 Britain, here’s a plan: stop applying old fixes to new problems. And stop obsessing about growth – Crises in productivity and wealth inequality won’t be solved with ideas from the 80s. It’s not about a bigger pie – we need a different one -by David Edgerton author of  The Rise and Fall of the British Nation

…”… as the economic historian Adam Tooze has correctly pointed out, political analysis has not yet taken on board either the extraordinary longevity and novelty of Britain’s stagnating productivity, or the partly separate fall in living standards that so many people have experienced….”…

John Komlos and the Seven Dwarfs – by Junaid B. Jahangir

Abstract – The neoclassical paradigm leaves students with the simplistic understanding that the contribution of essential workers is far less compared to that of CEOs and financial executives. This teaching is crystallized through principle 8, which associates living standards with productivity. The objective in this paper is to develop a renewed perspective by projecting the ideas of John Komlos through the song of the seven dwarves. Such an approach allows to retain student interest, make economic content relatable, and facilitate a nuanced understanding. The song lyrics help advance a renewed perspective that higher productivity does not always lead to higher living standards. …

… Keen (2011) seems to be a challenging textbook for ECON 101 students and appears to be more suitable as an intermediate level textbook that allows students to reflect upon the neoclassical viewpoint they would have studied in introductory courses. To a lesser extent, a similar critique could be leveled for Goodwin et al. (2019) and Schneider (2019). However, in terms of simplicity and heterodox engagement with the neoclassical paradigm, Komlos (2019) stands out. Indeed, Freeman (2019) notes that “it is primarily positioned as an alternative to introductory Econ 101 “principles” type textbooks”. Kesting (2021) adds that it offers a “critical running commentary” to mainstream neoclassical textbooks. Similarly, Balak (2021) adds that “it stays as close as possible to the traditional textbook structure” and that it best facilitates “a critical reflection upon the traditional theories”. His book is well-recognized, as it has a Wikipedia page, which indicates that it has been translated to five different languages including Chinese.1 Moreover, his book has been extensively reviewed in academic journals (Allen, 2019; Blackford, 2019; Cantillo, 2019; Foster, 2019; Burnazoglu and Ostermeijer, 2020; Coclanis, 2020; Jahangir, 2020; Tomer, 2020) apart from popular online platforms. Thus, for the purposes of this paper, Komlos’ work will be predominantly considered in drawing out a renewed perspective on P8 from the song of the seven dwarves in Section 6.

In offering his work, Komlos (2021) clearly tackles the issue of equating living standards with productivity by arguing that “output does not translate automatically into well-being or happiness” and that “we no longer need an ever-increasing quantity of goods”. Komlos (2019) mentions that from 1982 to 2016, productivity increased by 94% but compensation only increased by 40% in the U.S. (p. 112). Instead of blaming globalization or technological changes, he explains this weaker connection by arguing that “firms took advantage of their power and payed workers far less than what they were worth” (p. 112). He rejects marginal analysis that equates wages to the value of the marginal product of labour because both consumers and producers do not optimize but rather satisfice respectively through heuristic rules of thumb and markups in their decision making. Additionally, like Schneider (2019), he states that “it is impossible to measure individual productivity accurately”…”… – read article here 8-2022 The missing pandemic innovation boom – Digitisation and new ways of working were meant to unleash productivity growth. What went wrong?

…”…In the years before the pandemic, the rich world’s growth rate had drastically slowed. In the 2010s American labour productivity—output per hour of work—grew half as quickly as in the decade before. Societies had become worse at finding new ideas, translating them into innovations and promulgating these innovations. Robert Gordon’s “Rise and Fall of American Growth”, published in 2016, argued that there were fewer life-changing discoveries waiting to be made. In early 2020 a paper in the American Economic Review, a leading journal, made the case that, even where there were ideas to be discovered, they were getting harder to find.

… As a new paper by Mr Gordon, of Northwestern University, and Hassan Sayed, of Princeton, notes, today’s weak productivity growth is the flipside of strong growth in 2020. Back then American firms fired their least valuable workers, boosting productivity. Now they are rehiring them, dragging it back down.

… Perhaps, at some point, the rich world will experience the long-awaited productivity boom. But adjusting for the volatility of the pandemic economy, Messrs Gordon and Sayed find “no room for a pandemic-era revival in productivity growth as has been widely suggested”. A large body of peer-reviewed evidence before the pandemic established that innovation had drastically slowed—and explained the structural reasons why that was so. Wishful thinking is not enough to change that.” 14-8-2022 The efficiency movement – When it comes to efficiency, how much is too much? – by Rob Miller 8-2022 Google Has a Productivity Problem That Has Stumped Managers for 113 Years. Will Sundar Pichai Be the First to Solve It?My bet? Probably not – By Nick Hobson

“What happened 113 years ago?, you may ask. In 1909, an engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote a book called The Principles of Scientific Management.

… Google CEO Sundar Pichai said a couple weeks ago that the tech giant’s productivity levels do not match its growing headcount. For Google execs, they want to “get better results faster” with the people they have. Employees have been reportedly warned that workers need to boost performance as “there will be blood on the streets.” 

The million dollar question is, how will Google and others measure and monitor performance in effort to boost productivity? And can they do so reliably? A recent New York Times piece discussed what’s at stake for tracking employee work performance. With newfangled tech, we’re seeing “focus scores,” “idle time,” and “point ranking systems” take center stage.

The dangers of measuring productivity levels – Google and Pichai are yet to comment on how they will keep track of productivity levels. The devil is in the details. The tools are out there. But the problems are, too. …”…  12/2020  Powerful Strategies To Increase Your Productivity As A Digital Nomad     by ALLA CHERNETS

Questions on the agenda of digital nomads, whose forefront role in the digital-first world is hard to overestimate, range widely. If you are facing choice issues, we offer tips for creating strategic plans and a list of plug and play tools for digital nomads to ensure productivity.  2019  Solving the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’   Alex Osborne
This time last year, The Economist stated that “weak productivity is Britain’s biggest economic problem—bigger, even, than the prospect of Brexit”. While that situation may have shifted in the past 12 months as Brexit has dominated the headlines, the fact remains that sluggish productivity still persists as one of the UK’s biggest economic challenges. 28/3/2021 Baumol meets Marx Posted by Diane Coyle

I read Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation because there was a positive discussion of it on Twitter. I’d describe it as a mash-up of Baumol (‘cost disease’) and Marx (‘exploitation’).

The first part of the book is a rant about technology and why today’s tech will not increase productivity. It channels Robert Gordon and criticises economists like Erik Brynjolfsson (or before him Paul David) for arguing there are delays between innovation and the productivity effects they produce.

I have the same problem with this as with Gordon’s magnum opus: it might turn out to be correct that today’s techs have no productivity impact, but focusing only on digital entertainment and communication devices is completely unpersuasive. Vaccines, hello? The wave of biomedical innovation like the development of mRNA vaccines has rested on the plunging cost of gene sequencing, enabled by computation applied to massive amounts of data. Lab benches, test tubes, and also computers. The transition to green energy supply will require large-scale computation to manage storage, networks and grids. Additive manufacturing has many potential applications including printing organs and tissues. These applications are genuinely slow to emerge: large additional investments in equipment are needed, the organisational and ethical hurdles are high, other discoveries might be required to make them economically viable. We’re lucky so much of the prior mRNA research had been done before 2020.

Anyway, the book halfway through then turns to the growth of the service sector, the automation of routine tasks, and the debate about the potential impact on jobs. It looks back, too, at the well-known decline in middle-income jobs and growth of the contingent workforce. Having introduced Baumol’s familiar ‘cost disease’, it then turns to a Marxist analysis. Having never learned Marxist economics I found this quite interesting but heavy going, as it has its own jargon. Still, it is surely right to consider the impact of automation in the context of power struggles, or class conflict.

The book has some sections where it pauses to ask what is actually meant by ‘productivity’, a question of evergreen interest to me. It touches here on the issue of time use and time saving in services, and on activities crossing the production boundary, making it hard to measure ‘true’ productivity. As it points out, many previously household (uncounted) activities became marketed during the 20th century (‘commoditised’), and are often low-pay and precarious. However, the book then veers back to the more abstract class struggle.

All in all, I found the book quite interesting for its novel (to me) perspective, and it is well written. But much of the (non-Marxist) economic literature it draws on will be familiar to many people enticed by the subject matter. What it adds to the technology debate is, quite rightly, the issues of power and deregulation of the labour market,  beyond discussions of gig platforms. But it didn’t tell me anything new about the productivity puzzle.