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Nov 25, 2019

The hell of micro-tasking

None of these things is a big deal. Complete another required training. Approve a request. Sign a contract. Confirm a transaction. Find and send me this one file. RSVP. Complete a survey. Evaluate so and so. Submit your absences, approve absences, now do the same for UEI. Sign the log here. Set a reminder. Enter into the project list. Schedule a meeting. Put together a Doodle poll. Send a message to your faculty. Send a message to your staff. Find that e-mail, and send it to me. Find that form online, complete it, sign in, send it. Build a survey, get a link, send it out.

None of these will take more than a few minutes to do. However, they eventually swell into a huge swarm of micro-tasks. Like mosquitoes, their individual bite is almost imperceptible. All together, they can suck your blood, all of it, to the last drop. All you have to do is to send me your […] once a semester, in this format. Because any single task seems reasonable and easy to do, they do not trigger resentment and do not provoke a revolt at the time of introduction. What is one mosquito bite to me? Gradually, they add to a huge swarm that can darken the sun. You tend to get frustrated and paralyzed, suddenly sending messages too short to be polite, because you cannot afford to write a longer one.

This is the unfortunate side effect of automation. Each individual procedure was meant to remove routine, boring clerical work. And it does – 99% goes to a machine somewhere, but 1% comes back to you, the dean, the chair, the faculty member. Objectively speaking, the management revolution within the higher ed is remarkable. With digital tools, we can now do much more, much faster, with more accuracy, and fewer mistakes. Subjectively speaking, it feels like the special hell of micro tasks. Each requires a tiny thought, a small effort that depletes the brain power one bit at a time. They fill all the small gaps in the day. I pee with a phone in my left hand. I eat my lunch with an eye on yet another dashboard. Something went wrong with automation, probably a few years ago. Half of emails in my inbox are written by computers; no human being wrote the, and I am just another computer in the network.

I have a hypothesis. There is evidence that introducing helmets made football even more dangerous, because athletes believe they are less vulnerable, and take more risks. In the same way, institutions would not dream of doing that much over such short periods if they did not have the online forms, the data processing, servers, mail merge, email, including automatically generated email. We just attempt to do too much, because we know the power of the information technology at our disposal. Human hubris is fed by the believe our brains are as good as the machines we make. They are not; they cannot handle too many easy tasks. The micro tasks make us incapable of handling the real, important tasks. Well, at least this is how I feel right now, on vacation, while looking at my inbox, horrified.

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