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All this digital technology isn't making us more productive

Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The modern office appears to be awash in exciting new productivity technology that didn't exist 15 years ago, but a disturbing new report from Wells Fargo notes that measured productivity is slowing down in almost every industry:

Of particular note here, I think, is professional and technical services, where economic data says there has been no increase in the productivity of your basic office worker.

This is interesting because the information technology sector (as shown on the chart) has certainly continued to march ahead at a rapid pace. And that's equipped the modern professional and technical services worker with all kinds of cool new tools. You can collaborate on cloud-based documents. You can videoconference with your remote colleagues. You can schedule meetings with Google Calendar. You can read and answer emails on the fly with your iPhone. Your laptop is far more powerful than 2003's desktop, and it's far more flexible as well. Your office might have a wifi network and an internal chat system, and you can manage your benefits online.

Yet even though we are getting way better at producing technology tools, the tools themselves don't seem to be helping white-collar workers actually get more done.

One possible explanation is that all these new tools are genuinely useless. But I doubt that. People wouldn't be using them if they were useless. My suspicion is that the technology that gives with the left hand takes away with the right hand. It's easier than ever to sit at your desk wasting time on Facebook or Twitter or Gchatting with friends. Taking a few minutes off work to order this or that on Amazon is a lot easier to get away with than leaving the office to go shop at Target.

A typical Vox.com traffic pattern is to see many more people on our site during the workday than after work. There are more people on the site on weekdays than on weekends. Holiday traffic is low. And that's the pattern at every website I'm familiar with. In the past, people had to read newspapers and magazine during their free time. Today, audiences consume content when they are supposed to be working — because to a casual observer, one "staring at a screen" task looks a lot like another.

Office technology, in other words, is a double-edged sword. It lets us do a lot more than was possible 15 years ago, but a lot of what it lets us do isn't especially productive.

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