What I’ve been reading in April 2021

Cal Newport, A World Without Email: In his new book, Newport identifies a common scourge of the modern workplace that he calls the Hyperactive Hive Mind:

A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.

The first part of the book, where Newport enumerates the ways in which email and Slack are often doing more harm than good in organizations of knowledge workers, just had me nodding throughout. I’ve shifted in and out of various forms of this workflow for my entire professional life, and its problems have been self-evident to me for a long time.

I was let down by the second part of the book which suggests remedial practices. These practices are not bad, but most of them I know about and have already used. For example, Newport dwells on the benefits of moving workflows to task boards or ticketing systems. In my field (software engineering) this is already standard practice. I have long moved on from the debate whether a task board is a good idea to thornier questions, like: Is the task board functioning as a tool of collaboration or a tool of control? (Pro tip: lean in on collaboration more than control.)

Newport has more nuanced ideas as well, such as the counterintuitive one that introducing friction to some types of communication benefits productivity. None of these ideas amount to an easy recipe for streamlining knowledge work though. Not that I’m surprised – I would argue this is due to the nature of knowledge work. Newport takes an optimistic stance in the conclusion of the book though:

[…] I noted that the productivity of the average manual laborer increased by more than fifty times between 1900 and 2000. The reason that this is important is that near the end of his life [in the 1990s], Peter Drucker, the man who coined the term knowledge work, assessed the productivity of knowledge workers to be where manual labor was in 1900. In other words, we haven’t even scratched the surface of how best to operate in this new economic sector. It follows that the potential productivity gains of breaking the stranglehold of the hyperactive hive mind workflow are staggering […]. As one prominent billionaire Silicon Valley CEO told me when we recently discussed our mutual obsession with this issue: “Knowledge worker productivity is the moonshot of the twenty-first century.”

If I’m narrowing down the field of knowledge work to software engineering there exists a well established argument that there is no silver bullet to increase productivity by anything close to an order of magnitude; that manual labor which deals with physical constraints differs fundamentally from the creative act of programming which is limited by the mind. This is one of Fred Brooks’ core claims in The Mythical ManPerson-Month, a classic book that Newport does not mention, even though he must be familiar with it as a professor of Computer Science. I’m also reminded of Tyler Cowen’s line of thinking in The Great Stagnation and Average Is Over, which tempers the optimism of Drucker and Newport: the low-hanging fruit of productivity gains have been reaped during the 20th century and, increasingly and unfortunately, the spoils of an economy driven by knowledge work accrue to an elite of knowledge workers.

I’m afraid I’m with Fred Brooks for now. More than 30 years after No Silver Bullet he hasn’t been proven wrong yet. I still appreciate Newport’s overall project – extending across his books, articles and blog – of rescuing knowledge workers from environments badly attuned to their needs. His insights are crucial, but at the same time they run counter to macro trends (e.g., as identified by Tyler Cowen) and, I think, to human nature; so much so that few people will ever heed his advice. On the upside, if you are able to absorb his lessons it’s like acquiring super powers. For this reason, even if I personally didn’t learn anything new from the book, I would still recommend it to anybody who’s in the business of knowledge work.

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