May 2017 Archives

Slackers

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I've been digging deeper into the Slack-doubter camp, hoping to convince one of my company's executives to temper her enthusiasm for constant chatting as some sort of productivity panacea. Samuel Hulick's piece "Slack, I'm Breaking Up with You" makes the all-too-common plea that Slack is "asking for A LOT of my time," and "it has been absolutely brutal on my productivity:"

I may have been fooling myself when we were still in the honeymoon phase, but when there was all the talk of you killing email, I have to admit I thought it was the email problem you were attacking, not just the email platform.

Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. "Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity," I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I've since found it to be the opposite.

Like, WAY the opposite.

With you in my life, I've received exponentially more messages than I ever have before.

"While it's true that email was (and, despite your valiant efforts, still very much is) a barely-manageable firehose of to-do list items controlled by strangers," he continues, "one of the few things that it did have going for it was that at least everything was in one place:"

Trying to keep up with the manifold follow-up tasks from the manifold conversations in your manifold teams and channels requires a Skynet-like metapresence that is simply beyond me.

With you, the firehose problem has become a hydra-headed monster.

Everything is scattered, and the mental load that comes with it is real. Linda Stone calls this perpetual, shallow quasi-presence "continuous partial attention" [see below], and this makes each conversational thread, almost by definition, a loose one.

Responding to a description of Slack as "an all-day meeting with unknown participants and no agenda," Hulick notes:

Will they respond in 5 seconds or 5 hours? Who knows! It's like getting caught in one of those support chats from hell with a Comcast rep who's clearly trying to simultaneously jockey a dozen text conversations like some kind of bargain basement Bobby Fischer, except that it's all day long and with everyone I know. [...]

I wonder if conducting business in an asynchronish environment simply turns every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially "meeting-izing" the entire workday.

"All-day meetings every day of the week are substantially more 'meetings' than the ones you're saving me from," he observes:

This is awesome for speeding up the tempo of company directives, but it also places a ton of pressure on everyone involved to maintain even MORE Slack omnipresence; if any discussion might lead to a decision being made, that provides a whole lot of incentive to be available for as many discussions as possible.

Even worse, those with the least on their plates can maintain the most Slack presence, which leads to the most gregariously unengaged representing the majority of the discussion base while penalizing those who are fully engaged in their "real" work.

Christopher Batts, who titled his piece "Actually, Slack really sucks" comments that "my life isn't any easier now that everyone insists on using Slack. I've actually noticed its far more complex and distracting:"

Zero time saved, but lots of time newly wasted by the workflow Slack provides. It just doesn't cater for tasks that aren't immediate, and it doesn't cater for teams that work on different timezones.

In the "Managing Notifications" section of his article, Batts notes that "Notifications come from everywhere and couldn't be less ordered if they tried," and his section on "Productivity" simply states, "I get so much more done when Slack is closed:"

I can integrate Slack with everything from Skype to CircleCI. Great if I stare at Slack all day, checking a feed for a response from the latest set of integration tests running. Not so great if I have things that need doing.

Ann Diab's look at workplace chat asks a similar question: "If I'm always available, when can I get any work done?"

Whether it's HipChat, Slack, G-Chat, or any other form of IRC and instant messaging, workplace chat tools facilitate quick answers and instant gratification. But it's possible that getting instant input like this is doing more harm than good to the morale of your teammates and to overall company culture. [emphasis added]

Michael Muse's quantified look at Slack mentions that "Slack makes their users feel 32% more effective" but then asks, what's the downside? "Sometimes, Slack (or your favorite chat app, this topic applies equally to any of them) is the best tool for the job, but I'd like to delve into cases where it isn't." He observes that "nearly two-thirds of Slack messages at our company aren't in channels at all! They're in Direct Messages (DM)," and notes that "This poses a problem:

While a DM may sound like less of a concern for interruption than a public channel, they have a very different social contract:
- Unlike channels, you are assumed to always be listening. The sender knows you received a notification about their message, much like SMS.

- Unlike channels, you are the only person who can weigh in on the matter, so the message cannot be answered by someone else. It is awaiting your response.

This means that DMs feel much more urgent and important. Ever interrupted an in-person conversation because you noticed something in a Slack channel? Me neither. But you better believe I've cut off a verbal conversation midstream to answer a DM.

[He discusses this further in Footnote 4: "When a DM requires you to do some work to resolve it - the assignment of work happens at the requester's discretion, not the work-doer, which is TOTALLY backwards. On a team of work-doers, proper assignment of the work considers bandwidth, compatibility with other similar work, even learning opportunity" as opposed to some sort of LIFO prioritization.] He then considers "the aggregate listening cost" of the ten thousand direct messages his company deals with daily--as he writes, "14 is a data-confirmed, low-end-average for the number of high urgency, high importance interruptions each person at our company gets over DM every day:"

"So," you say, "what's the big deal with 14 interruptions per day? Had they been emails, I still would have dealt with them eventually." But you didn't deal with them eventually. You dealt with them immediately. [...]

There is a popular word for what's happening -- someone else puts some work into the very top of your queue, interrupting what you are doing and obligating you (socially or implicitly) to work on it now. The workplace slang is to call it a firedrill.

He writes that "DMing someone might as well be called firedrilling them," and pithily summarizes:

I like to call this unmeasured, unpredictable interruption phenomenon Slack-a-Mole. Don't play Slack-a-Mole. You're never gonna win the oversized teddy bear.

His footnotes link to an older piece from Trello co-founder Joel Spolsky that examines the harm of task-switching, and makes two main observations about workflow:

a) sequential processing gets you results faster on average, and

b) the longer it takes to task switch, the bigger the penalty you pay for multitasking.

This is because "programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once:"

The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve.

"As it turns out," he continues, "if you give somebody two things to work on, you should be grateful if they 'starve' one task and only work on one, because they're going to get more stuff done and finish the average task sooner:"

In fact, the real lesson from all this is that you should never let people work on more than one thing at once. Make sure they know what it is. Good managers see their responsibility as removing obstacles so that people can focus on one thing and really get it done. When emergencies come up, think about whether you can handle it yourself before you delegate it to a programmer who is deeply submersed in a project.

Also worth reading is this APA summary on the switching costs of multitasking, which observes that "Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity:"

Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

The piece includes synopses of several relevant studies; here is a particularly relevant snippet:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer [see "A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance" Parts 1 and 2] has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.

Linda Stone's description, metioned above by Hulick, of "continuous partial attention" points out that it is "different from multi-tasking." As she observes, "To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network:"

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.

This has negative effects beyond impeding task completion, because "in large doses, it [continuous partial attention] contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively:"

In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

"We have focused on managing our time," she observes, where we should instead "focus on how we manage our attention:"

We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.

Executives whose simplistic bottom-line mentality that sees only short-term costs may treat cloud services as a panacea to onsite IT costs, but that's only because they're ignoring (or discounting) issues of availability and security. Quinn Norton's "the problem with Slack" at Medium mentioned the problem of security:

General computer and network security in the early 21st century simply isn't good enough, categorically, to trust logged, unencrypted communication touching the net to remain safe over time. Slack will get hacked, over and over. (I know Slack uses encryption at rest, but if Slack can access your data, so can a sufficiently motivated actor)... [...]

As Slack continues, likely years into the future, it will be hacked by people engaging in corporate espionage, governmental actors, and talented amateurs. Some of these will be discovered quickly, others will never be discovered at all. Like every other computer system, Slack's employees, no matter how diligent, will never have an easy way to ensure that they aren't compromised. Given enough time, everyone is compromised. Given enough interest, it doesn't take much time.

Considering the variety of problematic issues at hand with all these aspect of Slack, it's hard to see how its use makes anything better. It should go without saying--should, that is--but Slack and the other exemplars of our constant-interruption business culture are completely antithetical to accomplishing anything of depth and complexity. The do, however, serve to make workers stressed enough so that we tolerate employers' further encroachments into our personal lives, as they demand more "availability" for no additional compensation. Perhaps that's the point?

It amuses me to see conservatives complaining about liberal bias--from Republicans. For example,
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) "who is not known for having the keenest intellect on Capitol Hill," wrote on Facebook that "the media was [sic] never this critical to President Obama, the recent Harvard study proves that the media has [sic] applied a completely different standard to President Trump." [The "different standard" in Trump's case was that they puffed up his early candidacy into a newsworthy event with billions of dollars' worth of free publicity, but that's another story.]

"Duncan, like many on the right, sees a recent study of the mainstream coverage of Trump's first 100 days in office," the piece continues, "as solid proof that the media treat Trump unfairly:"

It looked at news reports "in the print editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the main newscasts of CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC, and three European news outlets," and found that 80 percent of Trump's coverage by those outlets was negative - significantly higher than the shares for Barack Obama (41 percent negative), George W. Bush (57 percent) and Bill Clinton (60 percent) at this point in their presidencies. Conservative publications greeted the report with headlines like, "Harvard Study Confirms Media Bias Against Trump," and "Harvard Report: There Is A Huge Anti-Trump Bias In Corporate Media."

"The obvious response," the piece observes, "is that the vast majority of stories about famine, natural disasters, and genital warts are negative, and that doesn't imply a bias on the part of those writing them:"

Trump's young presidency has been a train wreck, his White House has been mired in largely self-inflicted scandals and his legislative agenda has so far gotten nowhere in Congress. And Trump, unlike his predecessors, has a penchant for impulsively tweeting dubious claims and inflammatory nonsense. [...]

Ironically, the Shorenstein study did find significant bias at one media outlet: Fox News was a lone outlier in that almost half of its Trump coverage was positive. Looking back at 100 days marked by chaos and failure, it's hard to imagine what a truly fair and balanced news outlet possibly could have covered in order to run so many positive segments.

As the study itself notes, "the fact that Trump has received more negative coverage than his predecessor is hardly surprising:"

The early days of his presidency have been marked by far more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever.

What's truly atypical about Trump's coverage is that it's sharply negative despite the fact that he's the source of nearly two-thirds of the sound bites surrounding his coverage.

"Trump's first 100 days were a landmark," the study continues, partly because "Trump did most of the talking:"

He was the featured speaker in nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of his coverage. Members of the administration, including his press secretary, accounted for 11 percent of the sound bites. Other Republicans, including Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, accounted for 4 percent. Altogether, Republicans, inside and outside the administration, accounted for 80 percent of what newsmakers said about the Trump presidency. [emphasis added] Democrats did not have a large voice in Trump's coverage, accounting for only 6 percent of the sound bites. Participants in anti-Trump protests and demonstrations accounted for an additional 3 percent.

One can hardly fault the "liberal" media for the fact that quoting Trump and other Republicans is considered to constitute negative news.

Slack

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New York magazine asks with dismay, what has Slack done to the office? and notes that the messaging app "has essentially ushered employer-sanctioned social media into the workplace:"

Like Facebook or Twitter, Slack induces the same anxious, attention-hungry rhythm in its users, the same need to endlessly refresh, and gives off the same illusion of intimacy in an ultimately public space. It also makes the line between work and not-work blurrier than ever -- the constant scroll of maybe-relevant chatter in your chosen Slack channels registers at times like the background noise of any other newsfeed.

Bloomberg asserts that you're about to hate Slack as much as you hate email, and Giles Turnbull notes in https://gilest.org/slack-and-email.html his piece on Slack and email that "Right now, I am a member of 7 different Slack teams [with] A total of 194 channels:"

Of course I don't keep track of all of them, and subscribe to only a fraction - 27 channels across all 7 teams. And I only keep a close eye on 16 of those. But: that's 16 channels that I feel compelled to read. Even if I've not been mentioned, even if none of my highlight words have cropped up anywhere. It's quite likely that something could be said in one of those channels that I will find interesting or useful - but equally likely that I won't be mentioned by name when that happens, because why on earth would anyone do that?

He continues by observing that "my experience of multiple Slack teams and channels is that it's no less overwhelming than an inbox full of email:"

The two experiences - one of opening email and seeing a list of messages, and the other of opening Slack and seeing a list of unread channels - are exactly the same.

What's more, the old criticism of email - that it's a todo list other people have control of - still applies inside Slack. People are still sending me things to do inside it. They're just typing those messages into a different box.

"Slack (or any other chat-based interface) can be just as much work as email ever was," he points out, "and consequently doesn't feel as liberating as some people would argue it is:"

I don't have any answers, and I'm not going to stop using Slack or email. Both are useful. I just wanted make the point: for me, using Slack might have fractionally lessened the amount of email I have to read, but it hasn't lessened the amount of text-on-screens that I have to read. If anything, that's increased. So it doesn't feel like a problem has been solved - it's just moved to a different app.

"The Slack sell to employers," the piece continues, "is that it decreases the burden of email, because nobody likes email:"

GIFS and emoji are the incentive for employees to use Slack; greater oversight is the incentive for employers to tolerate GIFS and emoji. A company-operated social network might not be something most of us would seek out -- but years of experience have primed us to accept a certain loss of privacy as the price paid for online entertainment or, in this case, entertaining work.

"Slack came into my life in 2014," notes the author, observing that the app "made us spend more time chatting than we ever had before:"

Slack's own employees reportedly adhere to the principle "Work hard, then go home." They have nonetheless created a product that encourages the opposite: "Work half-distractedly, then keep doing that no matter where you go." Slack has made work, like the rest of the internet, a passive addiction.

I am less concerned with potential privacy issues that with the tendency of Slack to become "a compulsion, a distraction. A burden." The author of last year's Atlantic piece on the Slack backlash observes, for example, that "Slack has been transformative for the way I work," although "Slack is not for everyone:"

Some people dislike the platform because it's conceptually like an old-school IRC without being an open protocol. Others have complained that Slack isn't actually an email-killer, as so many have claimed, but just another thing to keep up with on top of email. (The Slack detox, [see the Verge piece below] in the grand tradition of people's fraught relationships with the digital tools they use most, is officially A Thing.)

PC Magazine suggests that its audience should read this before ditching email for Slack, and points out that "Slack is free until you hit 10,000 messages and five supported tools. After that, it costs $8 per month per user (or $6.67 when paid annually." At nearly $100/user/year, Slack is pricey compared to other chat apps--although they're not as trendy, which counts for a lot in some executive technology-selection circles. Justin Glow, a senior director at Vox Media, wrote at Verge in 2015 about the week he tried to unplug from Slack. "Originally," he writes, "I didn't feel distracted by Slack at all:"

On my phone in particular, I felt the opposite -- like I was benefiting myself and the company by finding small windows of time in strange places to be productive at work. Over the last few months, however, I've found myself impulsively and habitually checking it to catch up on channel activity the same way I used to open Twitter when in line at the grocery store, or any other time I spent in between more meaningful activities. I started to question if I was actually being productive, or if this was just another way to fill a void with information that didn't really matter.

I craved a reset. How critical was Slack to my ability to do my job? Could I still be a productive employee without it? Was the massive amount of time I spent lurking and interacting with fellow co-workers increasing my productivity, or hurting it?

"I was determined to quit using Slack entirely for a full week," he writes, but "Quitting cold turkey, even for a small amount of time, was out of the question." His use of addiction lingo seems warranted, as in this observation: "With the app closed for half of my first day, I had a renewed sense of focus and attacked my to-do list, but my mind was preoccupied with what I was missing in Slack:"

I quickly discovered not being available on Slack gives the impression you're not actually at work and getting things done. During my experiment, it took way too long not to feel self-conscious during the hours I spent with Slack closed -- like this time didn't count, or I might as well have been at the bar -- even though it was some of my most productive in months.

As he concludes, "I will continue to use my own approach to balancing the need to regularly interact and be available on Slack while staying productive and happy in and out of work."

The Advocate points out that today's sci-fi is odd in its adherence to strict gender norms. A notable example is "The Wachowski sisters' remarkable Netflix series, Sense8:"

The cluster of eight we follow is diversity itself -- a Kenyan, a German, an Indian, an Icelander, people of color, a Brazilian gay man, and a Bay Area transgender woman. In nearly every episode, a cluster character denounces humanity's unfortunate propensity to fear and oppress those we see as different, as the "Other."

And yet...

Not a single genderqueer person anywhere. Not in this cluster. Not in the others. Not in any character they interact with. [...] Apparently gender difference is the Other that must not speak its name. And this is from a team where not one but both siblings have bravely and publicly transitioned to be trans women. Et tu, Lana and Lilly?

Moreover, all of this occurs in science fiction, a genre invented to let creative imaginations run wild with possibility. Apparently veering from the gender binary is not among the possible. And in this, Sense8 is hardly alone.

Despite citing the example of Jaye Davidson in the Stargate film (1994), the piece expresses no small amount of dismay:

In short, even our best creative minds are simply unable to imagine, under any circumstances, on any world, in any galaxy, in any alien form, a character who is nonbinary and/or profoundly gender-nonconforming (no, please do not feed me Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation). [...] Perhaps for a truly genderqueer sci-fi character we must wait for Taylor on Showtime's series Billions to don a space suit and launch a hedge fund on Tatooine.

Surely all that imaginative power can envision the realm of gender and sexuality as imaginatively as aliens, spaceships, and superpowers?

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