On Task Objects and People Objects

(Epistemic status: Complaining about western civilization.)

Think about your typical day.

You wake up, you get ready for work.  If you’re in one of the tech hub cities, maybe you call an Uber.  You talk to the driver, or not – it doesn’t really matter, you both are just trying to get to a place.  You go to a Starbucks or other coffee shop, have the socially mandated small talk while you order your overpriced coffee.  You start work, interacting with people mostly on a meeting basis – you have to account for all those hours, after all, and talking to anyone on company time is thievery.  You finish your day, and maybe you’ve scheduled dinner with someone for networking reasons.  You’ll be sure to talk for exactly the allotted two hours or whatever and part ways – after all, people have busy lives.  Honestly, after one hour you’re pretty sure there’s not a lot more to say, but you allocated two hours to this and you’ll darn well use them.  You head home, spend the socially mandated togetherness time with your roommates/family.  You maybe relax a bit doing something else, and then finally go to bed.  The day went well – everything was just as scheduled.

Of course, this doesn’t really describe anyone’s life exactly – it is meant to highlight a certain outlook that I’ve seen in myself and others in the name of being a productive member of society.  There’s a sense in which every minute of our time needs to be legible, accountable, and productive in some way to be valid.  Scheduling and sectioning off our days such that we accomplish tasks is a vital productivity skill.  In terms of conceptual interactions, much of our world is task objects – things that are meant to be done; they are outcome oriented, constrained by time, meant to be forgotten once they’re complete.

On the other hand, the way we relate to people is supposed to be different.  With people, relationships are intended to be continuous, unbounded, and generally exploratory.  Getting closer to someone, in some senses, is removing constraints rather than adding them.  Conceptually, this is what make a person object.  Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly unusual to treat our relationships in this fashion – frequently, we end up relegated the people around us to being task objects. We constrain our time with them, we bind them in specifications and legibility, and we consider the goal of interaction to be accomplishment.

In modern society, the response to increasing complexity has largely been increasing legibility and specifications and spending more and more of our time on task objects, because there is supposedly more work to be done than there are hours in the day.  Constraining our interpersonal time to task objects is an attempt to reduce the complexity of our lives (the complexity which is artificially increased by modern societal norms).  This is part of why it’s difficult to find real friends anymore.

I don’t have a good recommendation for countering this trend – it’s difficult to break out of the task mindset.  Every attempt to allow people to be person objects tends to start feeling like I’m “wasting time.”  I suspect that past a certain point, the curve starts to be in favor of person objects, but there’s a dip when you’re making the transition over.

Overall, modern society has damaged our ability to relate to each other by turning time and attention into products rather than experiences.  We are trained to think in terms of tasks, not people, and this is an unnatural state.  Undoing that training is a difficult task, but recognition of the division is one of the first steps to resolving it.

Discussion questions:  Do you notice yourself treating people as tasks?  What does this dichotomy suggest in terms of actions for you?  How would you approach reconciling the need to produce and the need to socialize?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s