Home > balance, news, social computing, Twitter > Separation Between Work and Home, from 2001 to 2011

Separation Between Work and Home, from 2001 to 2011

Ten years ago yesterday, I did a remarkable thing: I went to work. I was having breakfast at the kitchen table, and turned on CNN around 8:40 am. It was on when the newscasters first reported  that “a small plane” had hit the World Trade Center.  I called my mother in New York City–“Mom, turn on your television!”  We watched together for a few minutes.  Before the second plane hit, I went to work.  I had a CHI paper to work on, and the deadline was approaching.

By the time I got to work, it was apparent that something more serious than a freak accident was happening.  My PhD student, Jason Elliott, called the lab–should he still come in today?  I remember  telling him yes, get your sorry posterior in here!  We have a paper to work on! And what is the possible benefit in wallowing in mind-numbing disaster news coverage all day?  The longer we wait to look at the news, the more we’ll get the real story and avoid all the confused false rumors and speculations.  It’s all too terrible to contemplate, so let’s just get some real work done, OK?

Looking back, what strikes me is that in 2001, there was less news at work.  At home, I had television and radio. At work, I didn’t. Sure there were websites with news–but they presented text and still pictures–and much less quickly updated than is the norm today. Video and audio online were rare.  By going to work, I could focus on my work.

On December 25th, 1992 I wrote an essay called Christmas Unplugged about the way the Internet is reducing the separation between work and home.  I tried to publish it in time for Christmas 1993, but no one was interested.  A year later, I sent it out again, and got an immediate positive response. It appeared in Technology Review in January 1995.  Since then, the interconnectedness of work and home via the Internet has slowly increased. Yesterday was a fascinating point of comparison.  In 2001, work was still a somewhat separate realm. In 2011, if something momentous happens, I don’t think going to work could help you block it out. The news is in my Twitter stream. In fact, today news arrives  faster when I’m at work than at home!

The ability to avoid distractions and focus on news is just one of many consequences of this connectedness.  Another is the ability to work at home. Which is both good and bad.  When I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, people were in the building at all hours of the night.  Sometimes we were working late, and sometimes we were playing Diablo.  Two or three nights a week, my graduate advisor, Mitchel Resnick, was nice enough to offer me a ride home–typically around 11 pm.  When I was back to visit recently, I asked if people still kept crazy hours there. The answer I got was: people still work just as hard, but they do it from home.  Whether this is a net gain or loss for either productivity, sociability, or work/life balance I can’t say.

People have always had to make choices about work/life balance.  The difference today is that geography is no longer a tool we can use to help.  Work life, home life, and the greater world around us are with us at all times on our desktops and our phones, all mixed together. We still need to make those choices, but we can’t implicitly make them by choosing to be at the office or not at a given time.  Maybe we need new tools to help.

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  1. beki70
    September 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Lovely! I too went to work on a CHI paper actually. Rather than going to work though, my co-author and I worked on it at her house in the city of San Francisco where we both lived. We were also disconnected because the television was not on and we were not surfing the web particularly….

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