How online technology helps us love our work too much

27 September 2011

"Online connectivity consummates the middle-class infatuation with work." -- Melissa Gregg

Work's Intimacy, by Dr Melissa Gregg, from the University of Sydney, describes the extent to which online technology has intruded into all areas of our personal lives.

The title also suggests the darker side to this invasion. For some of us the pervasiveness of work in our lives has been lovingly embraced.

"There is now a significant number of people for whom paid employment is the most compelling demonstration of virtue, accomplishment, and self-identity that society makes available," Dr Melissa Gregg, a senior lecturer from the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, said.

There is evidence that professional work creates forms of enjoyment and accomplishment that now rival what were historically the sanctioned bases for social identity, for example, parenthood, marriage, neighbourhood life and non-professional accomplishments.

"This is what online technology and its growing list of applications finally allow us to see - that these pleasures and intimacies underwrite professional workers' willingness to engage in work outside paid hours just as they provide the justification for abandoning other forms of experience and fulfilment that stand in their way.

"Of course at the same time the work culture of ever-longer hours, as a result of being constantly connected to technology, conspires to make civic and family relationships increasingly hard to maintain."

Dr Gregg's book is based on research undertaken as part of an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship Project in which workers from large organisations in education, government, broadcasting and telecommunications were interviewed in-depth.

Drawing on this research, Gregg shows that new media technologies encourage and exacerbate an older tendency among salaried professionals to put work at the heart of daily concerns, often at the expense of other sources of intimacy and achievement.

This blurring of personal and professional values is perfectly suited to the "presence bleed" of contemporary office culture, enabled by technology, where firm boundaries between personal and professional identities no longer apply.

Laptops, tablet computers and smartphones mean work is able to impinge on all aspects and areas of our lives but it is also the new social functions they support, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are transforming the concept of friendship and intimacy.

Dale Carnegie's bestselling 1930s manual How to Make Friends and Influence People was an early forerunner of the merging of the personal and professional.

"Social networking sites build on this deliberate confusion of work and friendship that has been a hallmark of professional middle-class office cultures for decades," Dr Gregg says.

"What should worry us is if our capacities for intimacy are most regularly exercised in the pursuit of competitive professional profit, we face to the prospect of being unable to appreciate the benefits of intimacy for unprofitable purposes."

Work's Intimacy was released in Australia this month. Dr Melissa Gregg is also author of Cultural Studies' Affective Voices and co-editor of The Affect Theory Reader.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

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