Is Tech and Net Productivity Gain or Loss?

I sometimes wonder if at the personal level (not corporate or national GDP levels) if tech., is a net negative on personal productivity. Aside from the temptation to fiddle and try new apps. when it is not necessary, I wonder how much more we would get done if we never had tech to worry about? No upgrades, no learning curves, no battery issues, etc. If we conversed by phone and in person and handled everything by paper memo things would be slower but I wonder if more deep work would get done? This from a paperlerless guy—I have virtually NO PAPER in my life yet my recent lost hour trying to figure out how to solve a Google Drive problem on iOS could have been spent editing a paper—which was my goal until I was stopped by the technical problem—one of my own making I admit.

I love my tech and no one is going back—but I do wonder sometimes if the hidden cost of our tech is higher than we realize. Just musing…now back to that paper—marking it on the iPad with PDF Expert. :slight_smile:

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I think that tech is an enabler in more areas than simply productivity (the answer to your question is not black or white). For example your account that got locked out enabled you to access a digital document, if this document was physical it could get lost/left at home.
Apps are a hard one, they constantly update and before you know it you may be using something that’s outdated/no longer efficient (but you may not know unless you test). I agree that time can be wasted re-configuring/experimenting but if you manage to say save 2 minutes per document you can easily scale this up. Apps also offer editing/collaborative functionality you wouldn’t get with something written on paper.
For every battery issue you could also run out of ink/paper or not have a pen to hand.
In general I think we have moved into the digital era for a reason and it’s not just a purely productive reason. That being said I think every technology has its advantage/disadvantage.

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I feel empowered by a lot of the ‘basics’ — stuff like spreadsheets and text editors. Planners with auto-repeat/scheduling like OmniFocus have helped me a lot over the years. Being able to connect with far-away friends on a regular basis — without paying for a toll call each time — is good too.

That said, I see folks struggle with technology all the time. Regardless of how useful the tech is, lots of people around me still have a net-negative opinion of the (mostly Apple-branded) tech they use because of all the little things that frustrate them day-to-day.

For me, it’s the big stream-oriented social media platforms that have polluted the tech environment… they took an industry that was at least nominally about ‘augmenting human intellect’ (as Doug Englebart used to say), and turned it into a toxic stew of polarization and misinformation for profit.

I try not to be the person in the room who just sits in her rocking chair complaining about how things were better ‘back in the day’, but I think we can at least take inspiration from what some of the original goals of computers were in the first place. It’s certainly what I’m trying to do at least with the various hobby projects I’m working on.

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For me, on a day-to-day basis if I see my job as reading and writing, I expect it’s a net loss because technology endlessly fascinates me and I end up falling down digital rabbit holes.

However because I work in the digital humanities, there’s work I do on texts and with students that wouldn’t be possible without technology. Students who wouldn’t be able to attend classes if it weren’t for online education and if they couldn’t do their library research online. There are ways tech is incredibly helpful. An example from just this week: there are digital microfilm readers now so each sheet doesn’t need to be printed individually. So now I have flash drive full of digital files of the newspaper I’m studying. It may even be possible to do OCR on them.

And then there are issues beyond productivity. Spaces like this one where I can connect with people who share an interest are so valuable. People I’ve met and have become friends with because of an initial online connection. Being able to message my brother and sister from my mother’s beside without disturbing her. Being able to play scrabble with my sister during her chemo even though we were 3000 miles apart. In that sense tech is magic.

Interesting question! At the macro level tech increases productivity hands down. It took an army of secretaries (admin assistants in today’s terms) to do what one or a handful of people can do today.

At the micro and personal level it’s a net productivity gain, but tech does slow some people down.

At my office we do administrative tasks (ie “pushing paper”). Email, some spreadsheets, some data entry. The people who don’t have a good baseline of tech skills are definitely slowed down quite a bit. For instance, the people who don’t understand the differences between a website, browser and installed apps. People who get confused by the folder system on a computer. I watch them and know they would be faster if they were back to pen and paper and a filing cabinet. These aren’t dumb people at all, they just don’t have a good baseline skill of using a computer and that slows them down a bit in today’s world.

And us power users can certainly do down the rabbit hole of tech and distraction. Constantly trying apps, changing workflows, spending hours to automate a task that would take years to recoup the actual time savings. I’m guilty of all those!


It all depends (the obvious maxim). It’s what we make of it (more overused). Sure I could use a ledger instead of a spreadsheet. Granted a small learing curve to operate the levers in the app. But both systems demand attention to set-up. Once running the app is quicker and probably takes less time to modify.


  1. Learn to use what you’ve got
  2. Less is often more (why do I have 7 note apps on my iPad
  3. Can’t make it work look elsewhare
  4. It works stick with it (hmm Remember the milk, Wunderlist, Todoist … Things 2 & 3)
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Over the past 25 years or so, technology has granted us huge personal productivity gains. I think it is fine that you use some of those gains to fiddle with new productivity systems.