ABC BRISBANE DRIVE WITH STEVE AUSTIN
TUESDAY, 6 JUNE 2023
SUBJECTS: How digital distraction is eroding community and reducing productivity, and what we can do about it.
STEVE AUSTIN (PRESENTER): I've been looking forward to speaking with my next guest. My guest says if workplaces were reshaped to allow deep and creative thinking rather than multitasking badness, the economy and you and me would be far better off. These are revolutionary words in my mind. They were the thoughts of Andrew Leigh, who is the Assistant Employment Minister in Australia. Andrew Leigh is a Federal Labor MP for a Canberra electorate known as the Electorate of Fenner. Andrew Leigh has a great book out some years ago now called Disconnected, which I still go to every now and then. Andrew Leigh, I still think it holds well.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH ANDREW LEIGH: G'day, Steve. Great to be with you.
AUSTIN: And you. Is it still selling? I mean, you keep pumping the books out. Are they selling?
LEIGH: Here and there. I mean, books are a challenging market in Australia, but one of the great things that gives you is a platform to talk about big ideas. And I think there's no bigger idea than screen addiction right now. Basically, among parents, there's two big conversations that seem to take place among my friends. What's going on with house prices? And how do we manage digital distraction for our kids and for ourselves?
AUSTIN: You have kids. How do you manage digital distraction in the Leigh household?
LEIGH: We try and keep the kids off getting a smartphone till they're 15. We have screen time for them and try and build in more intentional family time. So, making dinner time a serious affair, getting out into the bush behind our house for walks, where the kids don't have devices, ensuring that they're involved in physical activities that allow them to interact with friends without devices getting in the way. But you certainly see it just creeping in. There's a lovely series of photographs, Steve, called Removed, which depict people staring into devices and then photoshop the devices out. So, you get these artworks of a couple just after a wedding, mindlessly staring into their hands, or two friends around a barbecue, just staring at their palms. And it reminds you of how kind of faintly ridiculous we would look to our ancestors, the amount of time we spend on these devices. They can do remarkable things for us, but they can also distract us and be a drag on both community and on productivity.
AUSTIN: My guest is Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Employment Minister of Australia, but I'm interested in him because he thinks about some different issues and talks about them in ways that other people tend to gloss over. He gave a speech recently, which was reported in the Financial Review, which is why I'm speaking with him today. Andrew, why do you want us to be able to calm down and think more clearly in the workplace?
LEIGH: Well, Steve, these devices and social media were designed by some of the best computer programmers and best psychologists in the world, with one goal which is to keep us hooked for as many hours as possible.
AUSTIN: Designed for addiction, inother words.
LEIGH: Designed for addiction, and incredibly successful in that. So, they've now supplanted television and in the case of teen Australians, supplanted even streaming services as well. Their addictive qualities mean that there is a tendency for each of us in times when we should be phoning a friend or going for a hike with a mate to instead think that checking their Facebook page will be sufficient or that some kind of an electronic ping will make up for a phone call. But as someone once put it, no one's born looking for a screen, we're born looking for a face. And each of us have a desire to have that human connection. That's the stuff of community. And as the Assistant Charities Minister, that's one of my main goals is to build community and get us to be engaging more intentionally. But I've been curious too, Steve, in the way in which the productivity slowdown may be because email is flooding workplaces, turning each of us into human packet switches, rather than to workers who are able to concentrate and engage in the sort of deep, productive work which really characterises our best selves.
AUSTIN: Let me play then, what Philip Lowe said at senate estimates recently, because he said it wasn't wage growth that was pressuring inflation in Australia, but he said if you get wage growth, what you do need is improved productivity. Let me play this and I'll bounce off you.
PHILIP LOWE: Nominal wage growth at the moment isn't a problem, and nominal wage growth has not been the source of inflation, I want to make it clear. The problem is weak productivity growth. Over the last three years, there has been no increase in the average output produced per hour worked in Australia, no increase for three years, no productivity growth for three years. And that's a problem.
AUSTIN: That's the Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe at senate estimates recently. The Assistant Employment Minister Andrew Leigh is my guest. So, you think, Andrew Leigh, that one of the reasons why there's been no productivity growth could actually be email in the workplace and social media use in the workplace?
LEIGH: That's one of the theories that's going around, Steve. I mean, this literature is pretty nascent right now. We certainly know there's other factors. We need to improve education, get better infrastructure built where it's needed. We need competition policy reform, which was at the heart of the 1990s productivity surge. But we also need to encourage firms to think about how to get the very best from their employees. There's a thinker called Cal Newport who makes the case that autonomy for managers and workers was very effective in boosting productivity in the 70s and 80s. But then as email flooded workplaces, has left workers feeling overwhelmed and unable to concentrate on substantive tasks. Some of the firms that have looked to break out of this have been -
AUSTIN: So email is potentially damaging productivity in the workplace?
LEIGH: The risk is, as Cal argues, that email breaks tasks down into bits that are too small. Rather than getting firms to engage in substantive tasks, we're sending these messages all over the place. Email was obviously a big advance on the fax machine, but it may have turned into a technology which essentially has turned every other office worker into somebody whose job description is ‘email answerer’. How do we break out of that? Well, some computing firms are going for a thing called extreme programming, an offshoot of agile programming, in which two programmers sit side by side at a keyboard and are told they don't have to worry about answering email. They can just focus on producing good code. And the firms find that if they get them doing that for 6 hours a day, that's way more productivity than a typical worker would put in in 8 hours. Another approach is so-called sprints, in which teams work together towards a defined goal. Again, being able to put aside answering email or Slack communications over that period. They're just some of the ideas that are doing the rounds but that's a challenge for managers who've been used to allowing people autonomy in how to do their work. And it might require a change that is as fundamental for the modern office as the invention of the assembly line was for the modern factory.
AUSTIN: So, social media email is actually distracting me in my workplace task, not aiding me in efficiency in my workplace task.
LEIGH: That's the risk. And the challenge is to make sure not that we act like Luddites and sweep these technologies away, but that we harness them for maximum productivity and ensure that they're building community. Technologies that connect people online can be fabulously important. If you're working from home, working across countries, they can connect you like never before. If you're a trans kid growing up in a rural area, then being able to connect to a community of commonality can make you feel much more engaged. But if you're engaging online as a substitute for face-to-face interaction, then that can make people feel lonelier. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the worsening of youth mental health has coincided with the rise of smartphones and social media. And even the actions -
AUSTIN: Does the evidence support that?
LEIGH: Certainly the evidence seems to point towards time correlation. We also have direct reports from teens who say that often the bullying is at its worst when it's happening online because it can happen a much larger scale than in person.
LEIGH: We've moved from apps like Facebook, which connect you to your friends, to apps like Twitter, which connect you to a combination of friends and influencers, to TikTok, which really is celebrities putting out the content and other people following them. There's very little that is about building community through TikTok, which is now, of course, the fastest-growing platform.
AUSTIN: Let me jump in there. TikTok, Australia actually just today announced that they have overtaken rival social media platform Snapchat, garnering an audience of 8.5 million customers in Australia, according to TikTok. So, that just happened today, apparently.
LEIGH: TikTok's massive and it's massively addictive. In some demographics, time spent on TikTok is larger than time spent on all streaming video, television and social media put together. So, if it was a platform which was encouraging people to get together with their friends, that would be great. But doomscrolling doesn't help anyone build community and can be a risk to productivity at the same time. Again, it's about harnessing these technologies, recognising that they're made by people who don't share the interests of making Australia a more connected and productive community, but are instead trying to maximise their bottom line. We should be saying, "How do we set up our schools and our workplaces and indeed our homes and so we're able to get the most from these new technologies?"
AUSTIN: Some years ago, Andrew, you told me what sociologists or psychologists call the psychological or mental process when you receive an email. And it was a reward phrase. I can't remember what it was. Can you remember?
LEIGH: Variable interval reinforcement schedule, Steve. So it's exactly the same way that poker machines work. Pokies are addictive because they're fundamentally unpredictable. And the same impulse can lead us to check email as the average office worker does every 6 minutes, or to keep on checking our mentions in social media. Our brains are wired for these unexpected rewards and the psychologists and computer scientists who've designed these apps are tapping directly into that.
AUSTIN: What's the name again?
LEIGH: Variable interval reinforcement schedule.
AUSTIN: Thanks for that. Now, the reason I ask, is because I interviewed Lee Hunter, who's the head of TikTok in Australia, and he confirmed to me that TikTok is not allowed in China. Not allowed in China at all. And interestingly, that China controls the algorithms for many of the social media things. And it's been said, and I want to know what you think of this, that China allows these very distracting algorithms to run free in Western nations, but they tweak it for their own nation to be very focussed on achievement, on mathematics, on science, on more productive algorithmic settings. Have you heard that? Is there any truth to that story?
LEIGH: I've certainly heard the rumour, and it's been interesting to see Xi Jinping's administration attempting to crack down on overuse of these addictive technologies. But regardless of what China is doing, Steve, we need to make sure we're ahead of this as a society because a goal of building stronger communities and building more productive workplaces is one that's really important to our society and to our economy. We need to recognise that our human brain is slow to change attention. We're not very good at multitasking. It takes about 20 minutes to get back on task. And so we're very easily distracted by the rise of smartphones and social media. We don't have to get rid of them, but we have to be much more intentional in how we move to things like a digital detox, digital minimalism and workplaces that are maximising the scope for deep work.
AUSTIN: I guess the reason why I'm interested in this overall is because there's a big push in Australia and elsewhere for a four-day working week. But I wonder if we'd be more productive by not necessarily needing a four-day working week, just getting rid of social media or highly restricting it in the workplace. We may actually become more relaxed and more productive by deep thinking as you're seeking.
LEIGH: Social media is important. It's also important that employers are thinking about how much they're demanding employees to respond on email. You can't both have an employee who is doing deep work and one who is expected to respond to every email within 10 minutes. So, this is a challenge for management to get right and to recognise that the technologies fundamentally shape the work. Just as parents need to set guidelines in order to ensure that kids get the most out of technologies, so too that'll be a job for great employers. I don't think government's going to mandate this. I think it's going to be about the smartest employers realising the productivity gains that come from managing their technologies well.
AUSTIN: Good to speak with you again. Thanks for coming on ABC Radio Brisbane.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Steve.
AUSTIN: Andrew Leigh, Assistant Employment Minister.