Digital technology has significantly and fundamentally shifted how we think about, produce and consume cultural objects, and I think the same understanding can be applied to digital work and help us see what makes it different from work that went before.
Jay Bolter, a professor of New Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explains how digital technologies were originally developed as storage for digital information, and how this conceptual framework influenced how we think about cultural and media objects as they became digitised. Every cultural items now exists in a database. Maggie Appleton’s description of databases as the storage shelves of the internet could bring thoughts of cultural objects on the shelves of museums catalogued for easy retrieval. Whereas pre-digital media, take cinema for example, has linear narrative and a sense of start, middle and end, the 21st century digital replacement of YouTube is a database. Together, all of the video on YouTube have no narrative, no story, they relate to each other through the structured data of the system that holds them.
Work has changed in a similar way. The production of physical items mirrors the linearity of cinema whilst a digital item, siting in a database on the internet, hyperlinked to, called as and when required, is to the economics of production as a cat video is to culture. Work is databased. The tools we use to create digital work catalogue each item of work by status, owner, cost, time, priority, all providing the structured schema of how one piece of work relates to another.
Bolter has has other interesting things to say about how we experience digital culture that equally seems to apply to how we work in a digital age. He uses the terms ‘procedurality’ where things occur according to a set of rules, and ‘flow’ to describe the absorbed state of scrolling through Instagram. If this is how we experience digital culture then it’s also how we experience digital work. Work is all about process and protocol. Design thinking takes us step by step through the creative process. Scrum rituals enforce a rhythm to the work.
Digital work doesn’t have the flexibility it could or should. Can we un-database digital work?