Cover story

XVIII.2 March + April 2011
Page: 40
Digital Citation

What I learned on Change Islands

Phoebe Sengers

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Our role as IT designers is to imagine and create the technologies of the future. In doing so, we are taking part in an ongoing cultural process of modernization that, since the early 20th century, has emphasized values such as expanding choice, productivity, and controlling one's time.

I am writing this article over what is nominally my Christmas holiday. Although the university is closed, work-related email messages regularly pop into my inbox from colleagues back home, reminding me that a professor's work is never done. If I don't feel like handling them, I can always spend time cleaning out my personal inbox, which is backed up with friendly email and notices from Facebook I haven't had time to deal with in the busy weeks of wrapping up the semester. Although I am 4,000 miles from home, I am taking care of my chores and errands online. Even if the local stores are closed for the holiday, there is still a world of e-retailers I can peruse to find the best goods at the lowest prices. In the always-on, always-accessible world of online activity, there is always more I can do. Although I take advantage of these opportunities, I am not convinced this is a good thing.

Though computers are attuned to it, they did not create this world; the cultural drive to continually use our time productively and to expand our range of choices predates computers. The modernist worldview that arose in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, inspired by scientific and technical advances, espouses the use of rational choice and means-ends analysis to optimize our activities and control our lives. This orientation is reflected not only in the technologies that we develop but also, and more insidiously, in our everyday habits as Westerners, and perhaps especially, dare I say it, as Americans. Though I understand it only imperfectly, the set of everyday strategies to optimize time use that have driven my career have become so much a part of me that I no longer experience them as such. Disciplining myself to work quickly and efficiently, continually seeking to fit more into a given period of time, and seeking out more information that will help me optimize my behavior and my choices culminate in a thoroughly modern way to be.

In this context, task-oriented IT solutions fit such strategies and perceptions, hand to glove, and thereby reinforce them. My calendar software helps me control my work and personal time: good. The Web increases my options in goods and services: good. Search engines help me to find more information and use it to optimize my decision making: good. Everyday, mundane use of software reinforces modern habits. In small ways, without my being fully aware, they nudge me to become more modern.

I would like to share a story about my experiences, specifically about how I became aware of how I oriented to time and work and learned to orient to time in a new way. I use this narrative to raise more general questions about the experiences of time and work that are tied to being modern, and the ways in which we build them into contemporary software solutions. What does it feel like to be modern? How does the way we design and build IT solutions reflect a modern worldview? What are the shortcomings of this orientation? And what might it mean to build technologies that reflect a nonmodern point of view?

back to top  Change Islands

On June 30, 2008, I drove a Honda Civic, packed to the gills, off a small, rusty commuter ferry onto Change Islands, an archipelago off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, Canada, 1,600 miles from my hometown of Ithaca, NY. A gravel road led through 12 kilometers of stunted evergreen forest and shrubby marshes to the traditional fishing village of Change Islands, population 300, where I would be spending the next six months living and working in a clapboard house by the sea.

I came to Change Islands to experience a different way of life. Newfoundland, settled for 400 years, is home to one of the oldest nonnative cultures in North America. Because of protracted efforts by its residents to maintain the viability of traditional livelihoods, heritage culture on Change Islands is relatively intact. While Change Islanders are certainly modern Canadians, they maintain many traditional subsistence activities and clearly remember a completely traditional lifestyle, which began to be modernized only in the 1960s. I had found Change Islands by accident on a prior vacation to Newfoundland, and once I found it, I knew I had to study it. On Change Islands I would be able to observe, experience, and hear about a way of life with a centuries-old history, outside the mainstream of consumer culture. I hoped to use my experiences there as an inspiration to rethink the modern, urban values embodied in IT and to open a new space for design.

I arrived on Change Islands burned out. Six years of tenure slog had established a grueling work pace as the new normal. For years, I had been vowing to get my workload under control, and for years it had remained incessantly not. The situation at home was little different, with weekends packed full of chores and tasks that I had set myself, with not enough time to accomplish them before another grueling workweek began.

This situation was not only unpleasant but also ironic. After all, my career to date had been built around the ideas that contemporary consumer society places too much emphasis on efficiency and productivity, and that we needed to take other values into account in technology design. A major focus of my work was technologies that opened up space for nonwork activities, including socializing and contemplation: precisely the things my lifestyle left little time for. The contradiction between what I designed for and what I actually did was clear. I hoped Change Islands would be a place where I could shift from overload and overwork to contemplation and reflection. It turned out to be a place where my understanding of myself and my work underwent massive revision.

back to top  Choices

The first noticeable perceptual shift that happened quite quickly on my arrival was that the world of opportunities in goods and services available to me narrowed considerably. Change Islands is an isolated, remote community. Given the ferry schedule, trips to the doctor, bank, or pharmacy on neighboring Fogo Island take about six hours, while visits for a wider range of goods and services to a larger town on the mainland generally take a full day. In the four small shops on the islands, none of which is much larger than an average American living room, a fairly small selection of goods is available. For example, fresh vegetables are generally limited to the Newfoundland root-vegetable staples: carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, onions, parsnips, and cabbage. Internet shopping is possible but is accompanied by prohibitive shipping costs.

At first I experienced these limitations as a real problem, but over time I became used to living with the available selection. I would sometimes buy exotic vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, or avocados in a larger town, then find them languishing weeks later in the refrigerator because I didn't actually need them—what I had on the island was enough. After a while and somewhat to my surprise, I began to experience these constraints as benefits. In Ithaca, I would spend time driving from store to store or surfing the Internet to acquire the things that I believed I needed; on Change Islands, the thought that I could use something was frequently followed just as quickly by the decision that I could easily live without it.

Because I could do less, my expectations for what I should do also were lower. Life became simpler. I began to realize that back home I spent a great deal of time and energy finding out and then doing what is "best": eating the healthiest and most ecologically responsible food, buying the best-reviewed and best-researched products, following the most optimal exercise routine, etc. Living on an island where you can't buy butter so you have to eat margarine finally led me to realize that "best" requires a lot more effort than "good enough," and "good enough" really, truly is good enough. Grocery shopping now consisted mostly of stopping by the general store on Tuesday afternoons after the fresh-vegetable delivery had come and buying whatever showed up that week. There was no need to think out complex menus; if I could just keep myself fed with something in the vague ballpark of healthy, I was happy. I lived in a fisherman's house that was small and simple by urban standards, and it was more than adequate. As Robert Ecke wrote, "In this country, anything that's good enough is plenty good enough and not to be fooled with" [1].

Because my options—in goods, in activities, in people to interact with—were so limited, I was able to expand my attention. When I first came on the islands, I was surprised at how friendly people were. Yet soon I found that I, too, was happy to visit, listen to, and help my neighbors to a degree that was unimaginable back home. Back in Ithaca, there were too many people who wanted a piece of me—people wanting my input, emails piling into the inbox, chores being shoved onto my to-do list, meetings being added to my calendar. In order to survive, I spent much of my mental energy fending off what was coming to me rather than building connections and relationships with those around me. On Change Islands, I lost interest in the input coming from off the island. I read email no more than once a week, with a sense of resentment for its siren calls back to the university world. I suddenly stopped reading the New York Times online because the concerns reported there (where and what to eat, what to wear, what to think about) no longer had relevance to my everyday life. With the space opened up by this narrowing of focus, I had the luxury to really see and pay attention to everything around me: to say yes whenever a friend issued an invitation, to stop and chat for 15 minutes with an acquaintance I met on the road, or just to notice the traces of autumn coming across the heathers.

back to top  Productivity

Change Islands was established in the 1700s and is traditionally a fishing community. It consists primarily of two islands separated by a narrow channel, or tickle. In the old days, the tickle and northern harbor were lined with merchants, where fishing boats on their way to the Labrador coastline would stop to fill up with supplies and, on their return, to sell their fish. Since the collapse of the cod fishery, many of the fishermen have been forced to retire or move away, although some local work is available at places such as the local school, shops, and tourist attractions. People generally live on Change Islands because of strong family ties and a love of the place, finding a way to make ends meet. Compared with what I was used to in more urban environments, residents spend a great deal of time on subsistence-related, home-based economic activities such as chopping wood, gathering berries, or home repair.

My job on the island was to do my field study, so I spent many hours holed up in the second-floor study of my house, crouched over a laptop, writing fieldnotes. When I looked out the window, I could see my neighbor working on his chores too: mowing the grass, building a new wharf for his fishing stage, repainting the chimney. We both worked hard, but I realized after a while that our orientation to work was quite different. Steeped in modern ways of thinking, informed by the time-management literature, my work was driven by planning and to-do lists; I strove to do a lot, to do it quickly, and to optimize my work process. Such a continuous, obsessive drive for efficiency and productivity seemed alien to my neighbors.

For example, at an island store that I frequented, frozen goods were not stored in the main shop, but in sheds below it. When a customer would ask for a frozen item, the shopkeeper would leave the store, go down the stairs to the shed where it was stored, and retrieve it. On returning, the customer might ask for another frozen item, and the trip would be repeated. This could continue for several more iterations. When a customer from off the island suggested that perhaps the shopkeeper could take the customer's shopping list and retrieve everything at once, the shopkeeper demurred, saying, "This is the way we have always done it."

Generally speaking, Change Islanders seemed uninterested in suggestions of how to improve their efficiency, and I quickly learned to stop offering them. Their orientation reminded me of Strasser's descriptions of 19th-century efforts by domestic economists to convince American housewives to apply streamlining principles to become more efficient [2]. Typically, housewives would reply, "What for?" The effort of optimizing their activities hardly seemed worth it. As Strasser details, domestic economists originally argued that increased efficiency would lead to more leisure time; in practice, however, increased efficiency in the home led to a rise in standards for housework and increased work, rather than more leisure. "What for," indeed?

To my modern sensibility, I realized, efficiency had become a stand-alone good. One should be more efficient simply because one can. To islanders, it seems, other values matters more. Life in an unforgiving climate has made it essential for islanders to rely on one another, and a great deal of effort goes into maintaining social relationships. For example, if one goes to someone's house on business, politeness generally dictates that one first spend time socializing over a cup of tea before announcing, almost as an afterthought, the errand one is tending to. Getting directly to the point, as efficiency would dictate, would undercut other things that mattered. And even in situations where efficiency didn't actually get in the way, it simply wasn't clear that it was worth the effort.

Being less efficient also generally means getting less done. At first, when a friend told me she didn't have time to talk to me that day because she had to clean her living room, I was taken aback that she could not squeeze me in. But later I came to respect this refusal to be rushed. While in the world of academia from which I had come, value seems to accrue to those who have talent at squeezing in ever more, on Change Islands there was a self-respect embodied in saying, "That's all I am willing to do," a self-respect that I had to come to the islands to learn.

back to top  Control

As I began to see and better appreciate the orientation to work surrounding me, I experimented with trying it out myself. This was difficult. On some days, I would take things as they came, allowing tasks to take the time they would, rather than hurrying them to an end. Invariably, on the following days, I would panic about falling behind on my field study and work into the evening to try to catch up on my omnipresent to-do list. I was like someone learning to drive stick shift, lurching back and forth between different paces of work and unable to find a comfortable pace for myself.

One day, when I was helping a friend with some chores, I turned to her and on a sudden impulse asked her how she planned her day. She looked at me, dumbfounded, then started to laugh, unsure whether to take me seriously. When she had finally convinced herself that I really meant it, she thought for a few minutes, then said that when she woke up, she simply knew what the day would bring. Of course, things could turn out differently than she had expected—an emergency could happen, an unexpected visitor could turn up—but generally speaking, there simply was a given order to her days. I got similar answers—including the uproarious laughter—from other islanders.

Such an order was, unfortunately, alien to me. I could articulate exactly how I planned because, as a modern worker, my days were driven by an enormous and well-structured to-do list, which had for years tyrannized my time. Islanders generally do not engage in this kind of planning and hence seemed unfamiliar with the sense of moral obligation to continuously do what this kind of to-do list generates. Why do they not do so? In part, this is because they see no need to pack as much as humanly possible into a given day and therefore do not need to have internalized such strategies of productivity. In part, this is because they simply do not try to control their time so proactively.

After a while, I started to be able to see how islanders choose to spend their time. Generally speaking, they rely less on figuring out what to do through a process of reasoning from first principles, and more on cues from their social and natural environments. For example, men's work on the islands traditionally takes place outside and is therefore weather-dependent. One neighbor therefore talked about organizing his projects mentally into a rainy-day list, a sunny-day list, a windy-day list, and so on. Similarly, if a visitor stops by, activities might be rearranged to accommodate the visit. Activities are also organized by common rhythms of activity: In moose season, you go hunting; after the first frost, you pick patridgeberries. In contrast to my experiences as a modern actor of planning out my time from first principles and based on high-level goals, on Change Islands, commonly held social knowledge, rather than means-end analysis and optimization, could tell you what to do. And this means that the moral responsibility for knowing what to do does not fall on an individual's shoulders alone; it is shared with the community.

back to top  Being Modern

I learned a lot over the course of my stay on the islands. I learned a small slice of the subsistence skills my neighbors had developed to an art form: how to pluck a sea-bird, find the good partridgeberry patches, bake my own bread. I learned what it meant to be a good citizen in a very small, tight-knit town: to make cakes for the bake sale, to come calling without an invitation, to sit for an hour over a cup of tea and really listen to someone—things I had had little time for in my university life but found remarkably rewarding. Most challenging of all, I tentatively adopted a different orientation to work and time: to let things happen at their own pace, to do less and to make do, to see no need to optimize. It was particularly through these shifts in perception of time that I first came to realize, even while becoming less modern, how deeply, unexpectedly, and painfully modern I truly was.

A major milestone in the evolution of modern culture is the development of scientific management at the turn of the 20th century, which developed principles to measure and optimize the activities of factory workers. Scientific management was a sign of a broader cultural shift in which the postindustrial workplace came to place a heavy emphasis on efficiency and productivity. What I realized in Change Islands was that 100 years after the development of scientific management, we have come as a society to the point where efficiency, productivity, control, and planning are not simply attributes we rationally apply to work but have, to some degree, also become the measure of every activity, a pervasive habit that infiltrates all that we do and how we see the world. Coming back from Change Islands, where I had learned to see the value of letting go of some of this, I started to realize how pervasive these ideas were in my own everyday activities. I started recognizing in myself what I ironically called "the seven habits of highly modern people," including filling any free time with task accomplishment, continuously disciplining myself to efficiency, and feeling that optimizing the outcome of any task was a moral necessity.

Being on Change Islands had made me aware of pervasive habits of efficiency and productivity that I had in every aspect of my life. These habits had made it possible for me to achieve what I had in life; they definitely had value. But being on Change Islands made me aware, also, of their costs. I recognized the cost of time doing research to allow me to optimize my purchasing decisions instead of making a straightforward choice, or not aiming to purchase anything at all; the cost of going to the store to get things I believed I needed, instead of just making do with what I had; the cost of stress in cramming more things to do into my life, and guilt when I didn't achieve them; the cost of buying new clothes, learning new things, being in style and up-to-date, instead of just being who I am.

back to top  Reflections

This story may sound like it is just about me, but what I have aimed to do in this article is to unpack and make available for critical reflection common cultural baggage that I had unwittingly taken on board. I am not alone in a modern orientation to time. Indeed, having switched into Change Islands mode, I started to register how much social pressure we put on each other to behave in a modern way. A sales window in a sports shop exhorts passersby to "achieve your own personal record!" A Droid ad shows an office worker gradually turning into a robot, offering to "[turn] you into an instrument of efficiency." When I reassure a fellow traveler on a flight that she does not need to rush to get out of my way, she snarls at me: "You may not be in a rush, but these other people are." These examples suggest a broader cultural logic in which optimization, efficiency, and productivity are not simply methods to achieve an end but have also become stand-alone moral values that measure the worth of a person.

With the cultural power of these ideas, IT design and marketing take part in this logic. Software applications often seem to be oriented directly around these values, their advantage being seen in making more choices and information available to you. Even "free time" software, such as Facebook or Twitter, functions to connect you with more friends and to access more social information. Task-oriented software is generally sold as increasing efficiency and productivity. From the to-do cloud application Remember the Milk to Google Calendar, we have extensive software solutions intended to support scheduling and control over our time. These software tools may or may not actually make us more productive, but what they certainly do is leverage and underscore our cultural belief in the value of productivity.

Clearly, there are benefits to choices, productivity, and control. But my experiences on Change Islands suggest there may also be benefits to taking the values with a grain of salt; i.e., to think about how IT might support making fewer choices, accessing less information, making productivity less central, keeping our lives less under formal control.

If we take these lessons seriously, we might think not about how technology can give us access to more choices, but about how we can design technologies that help us create constraints on our choices. Technologies might help to reduce the burden of choice for us by automatically excluding things we wish to keep out of our current field of vision. On Change Islands, when the last ferry leaves at 7 p.m., a feeling of peace settles over the island: We are on our own now. I fantasized there about a similar Internet moat that would allow connections only during the daytime, leaving the evenings for a local peace. More realistically, we could think about applications, such as email readers, designed to make it transparently simple to specify which emails should reach us instantly, and which could safely be delayed to be read less frequently. Or, as Ben Fullerton recently argued in interactions, perhaps technology should support not only connectivity but also solitude [3].

My experiences on Change Islands also suggested efficiency and productivity did not deserve an all-encompassing value. We have realized this, of course, in HCI, where the value of usability in terms of task-time completion has been supplemented with the idea of optimizing user experience, and where ludic applications have demonstrated the value of moving beyond task completion, especially in the home domain [4].

We might build on these ideas by asking how specifically task-oriented applications might also foster or support inefficiency. Another way to put this is to ask whether efficiency in some task domains is misplaced. For example, email readers send all email at the same speed: express mail. But for many emails we send, it may not matter if the mail really goes out that quickly. What if the default speed for email was once a day, and we had to specify when we wanted the email to go more quickly? Would this slow down email conversations enough to make their cumulative total more manageable? Would it lead us to reflect on whether we really needed to be in a hurry? Or is there so much social pressure to move quickly that we would end up always specifying "express mail," whether or not this made societal sense?

A wealth of software solutions currently exist that help to plan, control, and schedule our time. Arguably, these solutions act not only to help us control our time, they also reinforce the cultural idea that not having control over one's time is a problem and that it should be solved by better juggling rather than letting go. Over the course of my time on Change Islands, I settled more and more into Change Islands mode, in which activities could take the time they needed and it was OK to do less. Is it possible to imagine software applications that could encourage entering a Change Islands mode? If, for example, to-do software afforded only listing a few things to do on a day, would this help people keep their workload manageable, or would it simply become an irritant to be worked around?

back to top  Conclusion

I have attempted to trace the contours of a modern orientation to work and time, and in doing so to expose a common, Western, unconsciously held set of values for critical reflection. I have done so through the lens of my own experiences in order to show how these values are not simply objective facts that people leverage in their activities but also something that forms an indivisible part of our everyday consciousnesses and shapes how we experience the world. Because we invariably draw on our worldviews in designing software applications, IT design tends to reflect and reinforce these values.

I have examined particularly the attributes of choice, productivity, and control over time, which are highly valued in modern Western culture. By aiming to understand and take on an orientation to time that does not place these attributes at the center, I have attempted to show that there are reasonable alternatives to taking these attributes as central to IT design. My goal is not to argue that there is no value to choice, productivity, and control, but to demonstrate that in addition to their benefits, these attributes also have very real costs. These costs suggest that it makes sense to open a design space for alternatives. If current software applications frequently depend on and reinforce modern values, then perhaps alternative applications could help us to become, if only temporarily, non-modern.

Still, there may be real limits to the extent to which it is possible to push a countercultural ideal through technology design. Until I came to Change Islands, I had based my career on the idea that design should promote and be a vehicle for critical reflection, as I have attempted to do here. I believed that doing so would support a better world, as individuals would be able to make freer choices in their lives. Living on Change Islands convinced me that communities matter much, much more than individual choice.

Until I came to Change Islands, I lived my life in a pressure cooker of overwork, in which peer pressure to be and act busy was intense. Even outside of work, urban yuppies expect themselves to be competent and knowledgeable in many arenas. On Change Islands, on the other hand, nobody cared how many papers I wrote; how much I owned, how much I earned; how quickly I could cook dinner or how gourmet I could make it; whether I invested my retirement account competently; or how much I knew about politics, current affairs, or anything else. Although I, as an individual, could certainly use critical reflection to understand that working constantly is probably not the best way to spend my life, I struggled for years with trying to find some kind of a balance in my life. It took my time on Change Islands and the examples of people who work hard, but not obsessively, and who take their families and home lives equally seriously to realize the pervasive habits and unconscious values that drove the hamster wheel I was on, and finally to be able, to some degree, to step off of it.

I continue to believe that we as IT designers need to think about the values we propagate through our work, and if some values can be propagated, surely others can as well. But can IT design as an influence compete with a pervasive cultural atmosphere of overwork and overload? I honestly don't know. My experiences on Change Islands suggest it may be most fruitful to try by integrating critically reflective technology design with other activist modes for influencing individuals and communities.

back to top  Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the NSF under grant ISS-0847293, "SGER: Rethinking Drivers for IT: Lessons from a Newfoundland Fishing Village." Many thanks to the residents of Change Islands, who donated graciously of their time to make this project possible. Support for project activities was provided by the Change Islands Town Council, the Stages and Stores Heritage Foundation, the Squid Jiggers Tourism Assocation, and the Change Islands Newfoundland Pony Refuge. My reflections on overwork were greatly enhanced through conversations with Gilly Leshed and David Carlson.

back to top  References

1. Ecke, R. Snowshoe and Lancet: Memoirs of a Frontier New found land Doctor, 1937–1948. University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH, 2000.

2. Strasser, S. Never Done: A History of American Housework. Pantheon Books, New York, 1982

3. Fullerton, Ben. Designing for solitude. interactions 17, 6 (2010), 6–9.

4. For example, Gaver, W.W., Bowers, J., Boucher, A., Gellerson, H., Pennington, S., Schmidt, A., Steed, A., Villars, N. and Walker, B. The drift table: Designing for ludic engagement. CHI '04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (Vienna, Austria, Apr. 24–29). ACM, New York, 2004, 885–900.

back to top  Author

Phoebe Sengers is an associate professor in Information Science and Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, where she runs the Culturally Embedded Computing group. Her research interests include critical approaches to sustainable HCI and humanities-and-arts-based HCI methodology.

back to top  Footnotes


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