The Alt-Tab Productivity Crisis

There is a puzzle at the heart of our economy. A conundrum profound and deep.

But it is one we can solve, if we are honest with ourselves.

The puzzle goes like this: Computers have made doing things a LOT easier. No more do you have to go to the fax machine and dial someone’s number if you want to send them a document. A million little tasks are now so easy they’re not even tasks.

Check the meaning of a concept? 10 seconds via Google. Invite someone to a meeting? 30 seconds in Outlook. Etc. Etc. You get my point.

So where the &^%! is our productivity boost? You look at data since the dissemination of the personal computer and all the millions spent on IT, and there is nothing special about it. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re still dipping quills in ink-wells.

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This is known as the Productivity Paradox. But the answer should be obvious to any economist.

Underpricing will lead to overconsumption. And nothing is more underpriced than content on the internet.

The internet is not a double-edged sword. It’s a giant swirling blade made of blades. And it’s coming right at us.

Every swivel-chair jockey knows about the internet. *Flinches at gross understatement*. I know you know far more than you’d ever let on.

Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Solow said in 1987 “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

No doubt, even that giant of macroeconomics has Alt-Tabbed to watch a few kitten videos on YouTube. Here’s a funny one of a cat and a vaccum cleaner. I bet Solow laughed until tea came out his nose.

In fact, if we look at Em.Prof Solow’s publication record – dormant since ’01 – he may as well have been immersed in LOLcats since he pocketed that Nobel prize in 1987. (Joking. The man is 90.)

The reality is that if you have a computer jobs, there’s a great deal of stuff you have to do on the internet. And there’s a great deal on the internet that looks like something you could justify looking at for work, but really isn’t.

Now, some jobs don’t have this aspect. Surgeons for example, don’t find themselves in a Wikipedia worm hole halfway through a colectomy. Bricklayers neither. But us, the knowledge-economy types, the kind of people who are reading this blog, some of the most highly skilled among us, are essentially free to spend as much of the day as we can get away with puddle-ducking on the internet.

There’s your productivity crisis right there.

Also, the internet has taken our attention spans and tortured them until they broke. The idea of working on one thing for an uninterrupted eight-hour stretch is utterly laughable.

In this vein, I give to you the five biggest enemies of progress [Dune 2, now in your browser!]

Go ahead, click on them. You’ve earned a break.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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