Here we are. Floating through cyberspace. Photos, videos, and articles beaming straight from the screen to our eyeballs at ludicrous speeds.

But there’s one thing that the invisible flatland of the digital age is missing: a nice, loud, satisfying *CLACK*!

But we’ll get to that soon enough.

In this series of articles about work in the digital era, we’ll explore what ‘work’ means to us and how our relationship with it has changed as our jobs and daily lives have changed. We’ll also shine a spotlight on the tools knowledge-workers use and how those tools can dramatically affect our sense of fulfillment.

If all you have is a keyboard, nothing is a nail.

Many knowledge-workers spend the day typing away at mushy keyboards and clicking little on-screen icons. Mix-in some Skype calls and Slack chats, and you have a decent ‘day-in-the-life’ snapshot of the modern white-collar experience.

You may remember the definition of work from your high-school physics class. A small excerpt from the Wikipedia entry for ‘Work (Physics)’ explains: 

In physics, work is the product of force and displacement…Work transfers energy from one place to another, or one form to another.”

Simple, right? If you exert some effort onto something (doing work) to an object, that object is changed in some way.

Most of us experience this type of physical work when doing things like cooking (changing the state of your veggies from raw to cooked), or running (moving your body from your apartment to the local coffee shop).

This idea of work makes sense in the physical world where we can see and touch and feel the work being done. But what about in electronic systems? How do we understand work that we can’t see or feel?

How can we think about ‘work’ when computers are involved?

Let’s take this idea of work in the physics meaning of the word, and go a little deeper.

At the most basic level, computer processors (let’s put quantum computing aside for a moment, my fellow nerds) are just a series of transistors that can store and transmit information. To represent information, the transistors toggle their state from open-to-closed or closed-to-open. This toggling is the result of work done by a current applied to the transistor.

So when you are diligently typing out a proposal for your job, or putting the finishing touches on your new EDM album (to be released exclusively on SoundCloud, of course), the tiny transistors in your computer are literally having physical work done to them by an applied voltage.

Still with me? Great. Let’s press on and explore our relationship to work not as a science, but as an idea and as a wrapper for a set of actions.

“Work work work work work” – Rihanna

We’ve explored what work means in the physical world, including in computer systems, but it gets a bit trickier when we leave our physical realm behind and start discussing…*gasp*…colloquialisms.

When we use the term work in the context of a modern knowledge-worker (i.e. a journalist typing out articles, or a software engineer writing code) work takes on a whole new meaning. 

When you tell your friends “I can’t drink three glasses of sauvignon-blanc at lunch today because I have to go back to work”, you don’t usually mean that you literally have to flip millions of transistors or move a boulder across a field (unless you work at a Crossfit gym, in which case maybe that’s exactly what you mean).

By using the term work in the modern every-day sense we are often expressing that we are expending some mental energy to create or transform something digital. Often that means using a physical device (i.e. your MacBook), equipped with a digital tool (i.e. Photoshop), to create some digital artifact (memes, obviously).

In the most fundamental physics sense, those actions do translate to physical work being done. However, most of us aren’t talking about physics when we say “I have to work late tonight”. Our common understanding of the term work is metaphysical and abstract, not physical and sciency.

The rise of the knowledge worker.

This way of thinking about work is not new. The term ‘Knowledge Worker’ was coined by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book titled The Landmarks of Tomorrow. In his book, Drucker explains that the future will consist of more workers that use analytical knowledge and specialized training to develop new products and services. 

What is new, however, is that our work is now less tangible than it was in the typewriter-era thanks to digital systems (foreshadowing ahoy!). This shift from physical-work to knowledge-work removes the tactile feedback and the physical sensation of doing work.

Let’s make things real with some examples, shall we?

When you use a hammer to drive in a nail, you can feel the *THWACK* of the hammer as it hits the target. 

When you swim laps in a pool, you can feel the *WHOOSH* of water between your fingers as you glide along.

Why typing doesn’t feel as good as hammering nails

When you send an email or, say, write a blog post, you don’t feel anything. And by “you don’t feel anything” here I’m not talking about the existential dread and nihilistic worldview you may harbor. I’m talking about your hands and nerve endings.

The lack of physical feedback in knowledge work, the lack of feeling work, removes a sense of accomplishment that we long for as humans (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can explain better than I can on that one). We desire to feel accomplishment, progress, and self-actualization.

I will admit I often feel this way myself. After spending 8~12 hours typing away at a keyboard each day to put food on the table, I find myself craving projects in the garden or perhaps to replace the Idle-Air-Controller in my 2000 Jeep Cherokee Sport (easier and more enjoyable than it sounds, much to my delight).

Physical projects can give a great sense of accomplishment thanks to the real-time sensations of the dirt on your hands, nails disappearing into the wood, or a ratchet clicking through each rotation on a bolt. It’s the reason why so many people spend their weekends upgrading their house, maintaining their car, or spending time in nature.

We’re Doomed

So what can be done? Are we destined to drift along in the incorporeal plane, barren of any gratification from our digital labors?

In future installments of this series on work in the digital age, we’ll dig into tools and techniques we can use to generate that much-needed sense of physical feedback from digital work, including a tech-industry favorite: the humble (and often annoying) mechanical keyboard.

Stay tuned!


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