MoJo Author Feeds: Clive Thompson | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="cell phone" class="image" src="/files/phone-full630_0.jpeg"><div class="caption">Illustration: Shout<br> &nbsp;</div> </div> <p><span class="section-lead">My airplane home</span> from Boston is delayed for takeoff, so the woman next to me pulls out her phones to get some work done. Like many of us, she has two&mdash;an iPhone for her personal life and a BlackBerry paid for by her employer. "It's a dog leash," she jokes. "They yank on it and I respond. If somebody from work emails me on Friday at 10 p.m., they're pissed if I don't write back in five minutes." When I ask whether she ever just turns it off, she shakes her head in annoyance, as though I'd uttered something profane. "My team leader would kill me," she says.</p> <p>Cultural pundits these days often bemoan how people are "addicted" to their smartphones. We're narcissistic drones, we're told, unable to look away from the glowing screen, desperate to remain in touch. And it's certainly true that many of us should probably cool it with social media; nobody needs to check Twitter <em>that</em> often. But it's also becoming clear that workplace demands propel a lot of that nervous phone-glancing. In fact, you could view off-hours email as one of the growing labor issues of our time.</p> <p>Consider some recent data: A <a href="" target="_blank">2012 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership</a> found that 60 percent of smartphone-using professionals kept in touch with work for a full 13.5 hours per day, and then spent another 5 hours juggling work email each weekend. That's 72 hours a week of job-related contact. Another <a href="" target="_blank">survey of 1,000 workers by Good Technology</a>, a mobile-software firm, found that 68 percent checked work email before 8 a.m., 50 percent checked it while in bed, and 38 percent "routinely" did so at the dinner table. Fully <a href="" target="_blank">44 percent of working adults</a> surveyed by the American Psychological Association reported that they check work email daily while on vacation&mdash;about 1 in 10 checked it hourly. It only gets worse as you move up the ladder. According to the Pew Research Center, people who make more than $75,000 per year are more likely to fret that <a href="" target="_blank">their phone makes it impossible for them to stop thinking about work</a>.</p> <p>Over time, the creep of off-hours messages from our bosses and colleagues has led us to tolerate these intrusions as an inevitable part of the job, which is why it's so startling when an employer is actually straightforward with his lunatic demands, as with <a href="" target="_blank">the notorious email</a> a Quinn Emanuel law partner sent to his underlings back in 2009: "Unless you have very good reason not to (for example when you are asleep, in court or in a tunnel), you should be checking your emails every hour."</p> <p>Constant access may work out great for employers, since it continues to ratchet up the pressure for turning off-the-clock, away-from-the-desk hours into just another part of the workday. But any corresponding economic gains likely aren't being passed on to workers: During the great internet-age boom in productivity, which is up 23 percent since 2000, the inflation-adjusted wages and benefits for college graduates climbed just 4 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/phone-chart.jpeg"></div> <p>The smartphonification of work isn't all bad, of course. Now, we tell ourselves, we can dart off to a dental appointment or a child's soccer game during office hours without wrecking the day's work. Yet this freedom may be just an illusion; the Center for Creative Leadership found that just as many employees without a smartphone <a href="" target="_blank">attended to "personal tasks" during workday hours</a> as those who did possess one. Even if you grant the convenience argument, the digital tether takes a psychic and emotional toll. There's a Heisenbergian uncertainty to one's putative off-hours, a nagging sense that you can never quite be present in the here and now, because hey, work might intrude at any moment. You're not officially working, yet you remain entangled&mdash;never quite able to relax and detach.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><span class="section-lead">If you think </span>you're distracted now, just wait. By 2015, according to the <a href="" target="_blank">Radicati Group</a>, a market research firm, we'll be receiving 22 percent more business email (excluding spam) than we did three years ago, and sending 24 percent more. The messaging habit appears to be deeply woven into corporate behavior. This late in the game, would it even be possible to sever our electronic leash&mdash;and if so, would it help?</p> <p>The answers, research suggests, appear to be "yes" and "yes." Indeed, in the handful of experiments where employers and employees have imposed strict limits on messaging, nearly every measure of employee life has improved&mdash;without hurting productivity at all.</p> <p>Consider the study run by <a href="" target="_blank">Harvard professor Leslie Perlow</a>. A few years ago, she had been examining the workload of a team at the Boston Consulting Group. High-paid consultants are the crystal-meth tweakers of the always-on world: "My father told me that it took a wedding to actually have a conversation with me," one of them told Perlow.</p> <p>"You're constantly checking your BlackBerry to see if somebody needs you. You're home but you're not home," <a href="" target="_blank">Deborah Lovich</a>, the former BCG partner who led the team, told me. And they weren't happy about it: 51 percent of the consultants in Perlow's study were checking their email "continuously" while on vacation.</p> <p>Perlow suggested they carve out periods of "predictable time off"&mdash;evening and weekend periods where team members would be out of bounds. Nobody was allowed to ping them. The rule would be strictly enforced, to ensure they could actually be free of that floating "What if someone's contacting me?" feeling.</p> <p>The results were immediate and powerful. The employees exhibited significantly lower stress levels. Time off actually rejuvenated them: More than half said they were excited to get to work in the morning, nearly double the number who said so before the policy change. And the proportion of consultants who said they were satisfied with their jobs leaped from 49 percent to 72 percent. Most remarkably, their weekly work hours actually shrank by 11 percent&mdash;without any loss in productivity. "What happens when you constrain time?" Lovich asks. "The low-value stuff goes away," but the crucial work still gets done.</p> <p>The group's clients either didn't notice any change or reported that the consultants' work had improved (perhaps because they weren't dealing with twitchy freaks anymore). The "predictable time off" program worked so well that BCG has expanded it to the entire firm. "People in Brussels would go to work with a team in London that was working this way, and they came back saying, 'We've got to do this,'" Lovich says.</p> <p>For even starker proof of the value of cutting back on email, consider <a href="" target="_blank">an experiment run in 2012 by Gloria Mark</a>, a pioneering expert on workplace focus. Mark, a <a href="" target="_blank">professor at the University of California-Irvine</a>, had long studied the disruptive nature of messaging, and found that office workers are multitasked to death: They can only focus on a given task for three minutes before being interrupted. Granted, there isn't any hard data on how often people were pulled away 20 or 30 years ago, but this level of distraction, she told me, simply goes too far: "You're switching like mad."</p> <p>Mark decided to find out what would happen if a workplace not only decreased its email, but went entirely cold turkey. She found a group of 13 office workers and convinced their superiors to let them try it for a whole week. No digital messaging, full stop&mdash;not only during evenings and weekends, but even at their desks during the 9-to-5 hours. If they wanted to contact workmates, they'd have to use the phone or talk face to face.</p> <p>The dramatic result? An enormously calmer, happier group of subjects. Mark put heart rate monitors on the employees while they worked, and discovered that their physical metrics of stress decreased significantly. They also reported feeling less plagued by self-interruptions&mdash;that nagging fear of missing out that makes you neurotically check your inbox every few minutes. "I was able to plan more what I was doing for a chunk of time," one worker told her.</p> <p>When the message flow decreased, so did the hectic multitasking efforts. Mark found that workers were flipping between windows on their screens half as often and spent twice as much time focusing on each task. Again, there was no decline in productivity. They were still getting their jobs done.</p> <p>Mark's and Perlow's studies were small. But they each highlight the dirty little secret of corporate email: The majority of it may be pretty useless. Genuinely important emails can propel productive work, no doubt, but a lot of messages aren't like that&mdash;they're incessant check-ins asking noncrucial questions, or bulk-CCing of everybody on a team. They amount to a sort of Kabuki performance of work&mdash;one that stresses everyone out while accomplishing little. Or, as the Center for Creative Leadership grimly concludes: "The 'always on' expectations of professionals enable organizations to mask poor processes, indecision, dysfunctional cultures, and subpar infrastructure because they know that everyone will pick up the slack."<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><span class="section-lead">Now, you could </span>see these experiments as amazingly good news: It's possible to rein in some of our counterproductive digital behavior!</p> <p>But here's the catch: Because it's a labor issue, it can only be tackled at the organizational level. An individual employee can't arbitrarily decide to reduce endless messaging; everyone has to do so together. "People are so interconnected at work, if someone tries to cut themselves off, they're punishing themselves," Mark notes.</p> <p>Only a handful of enlightened firms have tackled this problem companywide. At <a href="" target="_blank">Bandwidth</a>, a tech company with 300-plus employees, <a href="" target="_blank">CEO David Morken</a> grew tired of feeling only half-present when he was at home with his six children, so he started encouraging his staff to unplug during their leisure time and actually prohibited his vacationing employees from checking email at all&mdash;anything vital had to be referred to colleagues. Morken has had to sternly warn people who break the vacation rule; he asks his employees to narc on anyone who sends work messages to someone who's off&mdash;as well as those who sneak a peek at their email when they are supposed to be kicking back on a beach. "You have to make it a firm, strict policy," he says. "I had to impose it because the methlike addiction of connection is so strong."</p> <p>Once his people got a taste of totally disconnected off-time, however, they loved it. Morken is convinced that his policy works in the company's self-interest: Burned-out, neurotic employees who never step away from work are neither productive nor creative. It appears everyone wins when the boss offers workers ample time to unplug&mdash;tunnel or no tunnel.</p></body></html> Environment Health Tech Top Stories Mon, 28 Apr 2014 10:00:20 +0000 Clive Thompson 248771 at How to Keep the NSA Out of Your Computer <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><em>Editor's note: Clive Thompson answered readers' questions about this article on Reddit on Aug. 28. Click here to <a href="" target="_blank">view the conversation</a>. </em></p> <p><strong>JOSEPH BONICIOLI </strong>mostly uses the same internet you and I do. He pays a service provider a monthly fee to get him online. But to talk to his friends and neighbors in Athens, Greece, he's also got something much weirder and more interesting: a private, parallel internet.</p> <p>He and his fellow Athenians built it. They did so by linking up a set of rooftop wifi antennas to create a "mesh," a sort of bucket brigade that can pass along data and signals. It's actually faster than the Net we pay for: Data travels through the mesh at no less than 14 megabits a second, and up to 150 Mbs a second, about 30 times faster than the commercial pipeline I get at home. Bonicioli and the others can send messages, video chat, and trade huge files without ever appearing on the regular internet. And it's a pretty big group of people: Their Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network has more than 1,000 members, from Athens proper to nearby islands. Anyone can join for free by installing some equipment. "It's like a whole other web," Bonicioli told me recently. "It's our network, but it's also a playground."</p> <p>Indeed, the mesh has become a major social hub. There are blogs, discussion forums, a Craigslist knockoff; they've held movie nights where one member streams a flick and hundreds tune in to watch. There's so much local culture that they even programmed their own mini-Google to help meshers find stuff. "It changes attitudes," Bonicioli says. "People start sharing a lot. They start getting to know someone next door&mdash;they find the same interests; they find someone to go out and talk with." People have fallen in love after meeting on the mesh.</p> <p>The Athenians aren't alone. Scores of communities worldwide have been building these roll-your-own networks&mdash;often because a mesh can also be used as a cheap way to access the regular internet. But along the way people are discovering an intriguing upside: Their new digital spaces are autonomous and relatively safe from outside meddling. In an era when governments and corporations are increasingly tracking our online movements, the user-controlled networks are emerging as an almost subversive concept. "When you run your own network," Bonicioli explains, "nobody can shut it down."<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>THE INTERNET</strong> may seem amorphous, but it's at heart pretty physical. Its backbone is a huge array of fiber-optic, telephone, and TV cables that carry data from country to country. To gain access, you need someone to connect your house to that backbone. This is what's known as the "last mile" problem, and it's usually solved by large internet service providers such as AT&amp;T and Comcast. They buy access to the backbone and charge you for delivering the signal via telephone wires or cable lines. Most developed nations have plenty of ISPs, but in poor countries and rural areas, the last-mile problem still looms large. If providers don't think there's enough profit in household service, they either don't offer any or do it only at exorbitant rates.</p> <p>Meshes evolved to tackle this problem. Consider the Spanish network Guifi, which took root in the early aughts as people got sick of waiting for their sclerotic telcos to wire the countryside. "In some places you can wait for 50 years and die and you're still waiting," jokes Guifi member Ramon Roca. The bandwidth-starved Spaniards attached long-range antennas to their wifi cards and pointed them at public hot spots like libraries. Some contributed new backbone connections by shelling out, individually or in groups, for expensive DSL links, while others dipped into the network for free. (Guifi is a complex stew of charity, free-riding, and cost-sharing.) To join the bucket brigade, all you had to do was add some hardware that allowed your computer's wifi hub to pass along the signal to anyone in your vicinity. Gradually, one hub at a time, Guifi grew into the world's largest mesh, with more than 21,000 members.</p> <p>In some ways, a community mesh resembles a food co-op. Its members crunch the numbers and realize that they can solve the last-mile problem themselves at a fraction of the price. In Kansas City, Isaac Wilder, cofounder of the Free Network Foundation, is using this model to wire up neighborhoods where the average household income is barely $10,000 a year. His group partners with community organizations that pay for backbone access. Wilder then sets up a mesh that anyone can join for a modest sum. "The margins on most internet providers are so ridiculously inflated," he says. "When people see the price they get from the mesh, they're like, 'Ten bucks a month? Oh, shit, I'll pay that!'"</p> <p>In other cases, meshes are run like tiny local businesses. Stephen Song, the founder of Village Telco, markets "mesh potatoes," inexpensive wifi devices that automatically mesh with each other, allowing them to transmit data and make local calls. In towns across Africa, where internet access is overpriced or nonexistent, mom-and-pop shops buy backbone access and then sell mesh potatoes to customers, offering them cheap monthly phone and internet rates. Song hopes this entrepreneurial model will lead to stable networks that don't have to rely on donations or tech-savvy community volunteers. He set up a mesh himself in Cape Town, South Africa. "The primary users of that tech were grandmothers," Song says. "Grandmothers are really dependent on their families, and visiting is hard&mdash;it's a really hilly area. So if you have an appealing low-cost alternative, they go for it."<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>WHILE MESH</strong> networks were created to solve an economic problem, it turns out they also have a starkly political element: They give people&mdash;particularly political activists&mdash;a safer and more reliable way to communicate.</p> <p>As activism has become increasingly reliant on social networking, repressive regimes have responded by cutting off internet access. When Hosni Mubarak, for instance, discovered that protesters were using Facebook to help foment dissent, he ordered the state-controlled ISPs to shut down Egypt's internet for days. In China, the Communist Party uses its "Great Firewall" to prevent citizens from reading pro-democracy sites. In the United States, authorities have shut down mobile service to prevent activists from communicating, as happened a couple of years ago during a protest at San Francisco subway stations. And such reactions aren't only prompted by dissent. Some of the big phone and cable companies have begun to block digital activities they disapprove of, like sharing huge files on BitTorrent. In 2009, the recording industry even persuaded France to pass a law&mdash;since declared unconstitutional&mdash;that canceled the internet service of any household caught downloading copyrighted files more than three times.</p> <p>The last-mile problem, it turns out, isn't just technical or economic: It's political and even cultural. To repurpose the famous A.J. Liebling statement, internet freedom is guaranteed only to those who own a connection. "And right now, you and me don't own the internet&mdash;we just rent the capacity to access it from the companies that do own it," Wilder says.</p> <p>So now digital-freedom activists and nonprofits are making mesh tools specifically to carve out spaces free from government snooping. During the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York City, Wilder set up a local mesh for the protesters. In Washington, DC, the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute is developing Commotion&mdash;"internet in a suitcase" software that lets anyone quickly deploy a mesh. "We're making infrastructure for anyone who wants to control their own network," says Sascha Meinrath, who runs OTI. In a country with a repressive government, dissidents could use Commotion to set up a private, encrypted mesh. If a despot decided to shut off internet access, the activists could pay for a satellite connection and then share it across the mesh, getting a large group of people back online quickly.</p> <p>Meinrath and his group have tested Commotion in American communities, including Detroit and Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, where locals used it to get back online after Hurricane Sandy. Now OTI is working on a mesh that will provide secure local communications for communities in Tunisia.</p> <p>Even voice calls can be meshed. Commotion includes Serval, software that lets you network Android phones and communicate directly via wifi without going through a wireless carrier&mdash;sort of like a high-tech walkie-talkie network. Created by Paul Gardner-Stephen, a research fellow at Australia's Flinders University, Serval also encrypts phone calls and texts, making it extremely hard for outsiders to eavesdrop. When OTI employees tested it this spring using external "range extenders," they were able to text one another from nearly a mile away on the National Mall. Hopping onto the DC Metro, they found they could trade messages while riding six cars apart. "We now know how to make a completely distributed phone system," Gardner-Stephen says. Despite the modest ranges now possible, there are plenty of potential uses. After an earthquake, he notes, Serval could help citizens and aid agencies make local calls instantly. In an Occupy-style scenario, police may try to shut down texting via Verizon and AT&amp;T only to discover that activists have their own private Serval channel.</p> <p>Granted, Meinrath points out even encrypted systems like Commotion aren't a privacy panacea. Encryption can be broken, and if the mesh hooks up to the regular internet&mdash;via satellite, for instance&mdash;then you're sending signals back out to where the NSA and others have plenty of taps.</p> <p>Even so, alternative networks are a pretty subversive idea, one that has attracted some strange bedfellows. The State Department recently ponied up almost $3 million to support Commotion, because officials think it could help freedom of speech abroad. But given the revelations about NSA spying (Commotion's developer, OTI, is considering joining a lawsuit to challenge the agency's surveillance program), the software is likely to gain traction among activists here at home. "It makes all the sense in the world," Meinrath says.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>THE RISE OF</strong> community meshes suggests a possibility that is considerably more radical. What if you wanted a mesh that spanned the globe? A way to communicate with anyone, anywhere, without going over a single inch of corporate or government cable? Like what Joseph Bonicioli has in Athens writ large&mdash;a parallel, global internet run by the people, for the people. Could such a beast be built?</p> <p>On a purely technical level, mesh advocates say it's super hard, but not impossible. First, you'd build as many local mesh networks as you can, and then you'd connect them together. Long-distance "hops" are tricky, but community meshes already use special wifi antennas&mdash;sometimes "cantennas" made out of Pringles-type containers&mdash;to join far-flung neighborhoods. Down in Argentina, meshers have shot signals up to 10 miles to bring together remote villages; in Greece, Bonicioli says they've connected towns as far as 60 miles apart. For bigger leaps, there are even more colorful ideas: Float a balloon 60,000 feet in the air, attach a wifi repeater, and you could bounce a signal between two cities separated by hundreds of miles. It sounds nuts, but Google actually pulled it off this past summer, when its Project Loon sent a flotilla of balloons over New Zealand to blanket the rural countryside with wireless connections. There are even DIY satellites: Home-brewed "cubesats" have already been put into orbit by university researchers for less than $100,000 each. That's hardly chump change, but it's well within, say, Kickstarter range.</p> <p>For stable communications, though, the best bet would be to snag some better spectrum. The airwaves are a public resource, but they are regulated by national agencies like the Federal Communications Commission that dole out the strongest frequencies&mdash;the ones that can travel huge distances and pass easily through physical objects&mdash;to the military and major broadcasters. (Wifi uses one of the rare public-access frequencies.) If the FCC could be convinced to hand over some of those powerful frequencies to the public, meshes could span huge distances. "We need free networks, and we need free bandwidth," says Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University and head of the Software Freedom Law Center. But given the power of the telco and defense lobbies, don't hold your breath.</p> <p>The notion of a truly independent global internet may still be a gleam in the eye of the meshers, but their visionary zeal is contagious. It harkens back to the early days of the digital universe, when the network consisted mostly of university scientists and researchers communicating among themselves without corporations sitting in the middle or government (that we know of) monitoring their chats. The goal then, as now, was both connection and control: an internet of one's own.</p></body></html> Politics Civil Liberties Tech Top Stories Mon, 19 Aug 2013 10:00:06 +0000 Clive Thompson 231196 at Nothing Grows Forever <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><strong>PETER VICTOR</strong> is an economist who has been asking a heretical question: Can the Earth support endless growth?</p> <p>Traditionally, economists have argued that the answer is "yes." In the 1960s when Victor was earning his various degrees, a steady rise in gross domestic product (GDP)&mdash;the combined value of our paid work and the things we produce&mdash;was seen as crucial for raising living standards and keeping the masses out of poverty. We grow or we languish: This assumption has become so central to our economic identity that it underpins almost every financial move our leaders make. It is to economics what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is to physics.</p> <p>But Victor&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">now a professor</a> at York University in Toronto&mdash;felt something tugging him in the opposite direction. Ecologists were beginning to learn that Earth <em>does</em> have limits. Pump enough pollution into a lake and you can ruin it forever; chop down enough forest and it might never grow back. By the early '00s, the frailties of the planet were becoming even more evident&mdash;and unsettling&mdash;as <a href="" target="_blank">greenhouse gases</a> accumulated and chunks of Greenland's glaciers <a href="" target="_blank">began breaking off</a> into the sea. "We've had 125,000 generations of humans, but it's only been <a href="" target="_blank">the last eight</a> that have had growth," Victor told me. "So what's considered normal? I think we live in very abnormal times. And the signs are showing up everywhere that the burden we're placing on the natural environment can't be borne."</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2010/05/peter-victor-deficit-growth"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Economy Top Stories Tue, 27 Jul 2010 10:00:00 +0000 Clive Thompson 53226 at Disaster Capitalism <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><strong>LAST YEAR,</strong> Beluga Shipping discovered that there's money in global warming.</p> <p>Beluga is a German firm that specializes in "super-heavy lift" transport. Its vessels are equipped with massive cranes, allowing it to load and unload massive objects, like multiton propeller blades for wind turbines. It is an enormously expensive business, but last summer, Beluga executives hit upon an interesting way to save money: <a href="">Shipping freight over a melting Arctic</a>.</p> <p>Beluga had received contracts to send materials on a sprawling trip that would begin in Ulsan, South Korea, and head to the Russian port city of Arkhangelsk, located near the border with Finland.<a href="#correction">*</a> Normally, this trip requires Beluga's ships to navigate an 11,000-mile route around the south of India and through the Suez Canal. But in 2008, its executives decided that global warming had eroded the Arctic's summer sea ice significantly enough that their ships could travel the Northeast Passage along the north coast of Russia. Previously, a cargo ship could only safely navigate that route if an icebreaker went ahead, smashing a route through thick ice.</p> <p>Now, a warming climate had&mdash;for six to eight weeks beginning in July&mdash;transformed the route into mostly open water, studded with ice floes that the Beluga ships could navigate. So the executives got permission from the Russian government to travel along the coast, paid a transit fee of "a comparably moderate five-digit figure," and sent two ships on their way. Four months later, they'd finished the trip. Compared with the old Suez Canal journey, this shorter route saved an enormous pile of money: It cost $300,000 less per ship in fuel and bunker costs. Global warming had boosted the company's revenues by more than half a million dollars in one year alone.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/environment/2010/04/climate-desk-climate-change-corporations"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Corporations Economy Top Stories Mon, 19 Apr 2010 10:00:28 +0000 Clive Thompson 54471 at