What we could lose if AI takes away busywork

Some say busywork has its benefits and helps to give the mind a break while still being on the clock.

By Kristen CabreraFebruary 27, 2024 2:29 pm, ,

Busywork: Those tedious, minute tasks that seem to take up way more time than they’re worth. Supporters of artificial intelligence say the more that companies use AI, the more they won’t have to belabor workers with the mundane, everyday rote work that so many people despise.

But in a recent article for Verge, writer Lauren Larson asks if such a change is really a good thing.

Larson spoke to the Standard about her piece “In defence of busywork and why busywork might have its benefits. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: “In defense of busywork.” I think a lot of folks consider busywork a monumental waste of time when we could be doing things more creative – you know, things that demand more intellectual effort. More satisfying work. How can busywork be a good thing?

Lauren Larson: Well, I also hate busywork, in theory. And but then when I was thinking through it a little more, I realized it actually has some helpful properties. It clears my head during the day, and it is a good way to pretend like you’re working when you’re actually not thinking.

“To pretend like you’re working.” Well, I think some business owners would say, “see there, that’s why we need more AI.” Because if we’re just spinning our wheels doing nothing, maybe this helps us become more productive.

But maybe we’re not really spinning our wheels doing nothing, per se. You know, that time we spend recharging while we’re populating a spreadsheet or, you know, kind of having ideas while we’re doing invoices? I think that that is also really important time.

Well, now, people you spoke with, what were they telling you? What sort of feedback were you getting as you were preparing this piece?

I think everybody landed at the same primary concern, which is “if we’re cutting out two hours of busywork from my day, what am I going to be expected to do with those hours?” And almost everyone landed in the same place, which was we should then have a four-day workweek.

So that could potentially mean less work, less take home pay, perhaps, maybe people being judged as having not done that much before AI came along and being judged on a different sort of standard. Is that what you’re talking about?

Right. Then the pressure becomes, should we be innovating all the time and having these, like, big, deep creative thoughts all the time? And I don’t think I’m capable of that.

Personally, I think I have maybe one big deep creative thought a week maximum.

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But this sort of gets to what we value and how we value it, I suppose not just in the workplace, but at a larger cultural level. And that seems to be a point that you’re making here.

Yeah. I mean, it’s obviously terrible that we live and work in a culture where we need to feel like we’re working all the time. And, you know, that’s a huge problem, I think.

What does that transition to a better way of working look like is the really salient and kind of dark question.

I think some people could quarrel or quibble with what the phrase “busywork” means. But when it comes right down to, I think a lot of companies would say, “well, you know, if we can get this done more efficiently, isn’t that in a sense part of a goal of any well-run business?” It’s about productivity, right?

It’s about productivity. But if you’re a manager, you also don’t want to burn out your workers. And a lot of the experts that I talked to raised burnout.

In theory, eliminating busywork seems like the sell for burnout because you think that that’s the thing that’s actually burning you out. But what’s burning you out is thinking work and meetings and things like that. And this is actually recharging us.

So, you know, it ultimately will be up to managers to figure out a balance between productivity and worker health. Which is yikes.

Yeah, yikes indeed. And it’s got me thinking about how we have an upcoming special here, “The future of work in Texas” that Texas Standard producers/reporters are putting together right now. And well, in the context of what you’re talking about here, how do you see AI’s role in the future of work in Texas? How do you see it evolving?

My knee jerk is to say, I fear AI as a journalist, and I am opposed to the sort of move-fast, break things approach that we’re taking as a country. But I also really value it in my own day-to-day.

I use like transcription services a lot. This story I wrote for Verge started as a piece about transcription, specifically the company Rev, which is based in Austin. And I use it a lot more than I think I do, and it’s helped me keep up.

Is it possible that perhaps we’re not eliminating busywork? We’re making more of it?

Yeah, that’s the fear. And the hope, I guess.

If you’re if you’re an entry level worker and you’re trying to crack into a corporate field, historically that’s involved a lot of busywork and, you know, making more and different busywork that requires a very specialized set of skills, like having somebody whose job it is to build these AI tools in corporations like that could be a way to crack into an industry later. But we’ll see.

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