Is cognitive load a factor in community decline?

post by ryan_b · 2018-12-07T15:45:20.605Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW · GW · 6 comments

This is speculation; I had the thought and then ran in to trouble disentangling the question I am trying to answer from other research on a different question, and also the sources I know about are not conveniently available to me. Ideally I can either get a swift negation or a line on the right kind of research to look at from here.

From here I get the notion that more effort is required per hour of work than was the case in the past. It's very long, but here's the part that piqued my interest:

So labour productivity growth in textiles came from a combination of “speed-up” and “stretch-out”, which is equivalent to “labour intensification” — making each worker exert more effort for every hour of work.
Clark (1987) notes that over the course of the 19th century the average Lancashire operative roughly doubled the number of machines tended, even as the speed of machines also increased. This higher workload makes it “unsafe to infer that the increase in output per worker resulted solely from technical progress”.
That view is powerfully supported by Bessen (2012), who estimates approximately 1/4 of the 50-fold increase in cloth output per worker-hour between 1800 and 1900 was due to each weaver simply operating more looms than they had done initially. That’s really big. But if you cut off the initial quantum leap from the hand loom (1800) to the power loom (1819) and consider only the mechanised era after 1819, the share of  the productivity growth due to greater exertion of effort is even bigger more than 60% !

From this Kathy Sierra talk I saw some months ago, I get the notion of total cognitive resources used during work. Combining these two suggests to me that the total cognitive resources used on the job have increased over time.

Finally I have been wondering about the decline of community in the United States these last few weeks. Referring to Putnam, it seems this has been pretty consistent since ~1965.

So what I am wondering is: did we cross some threshold around 1965 where the demands of work ate up the all cognitive resources we had available, so none were left for working in/on our community?

In pseudoerasmus' post the term "labor intensification" is used, but when I search for variations on labor intensity/ification, mostly what I get is the ratio of labor expenditures to capital expenditures. I also don't have access to Benson's paper, and while I am prepared to go around that lack of access I wanted to see if there was a publicly available body of work to check first.


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comment by ryan_b · 2018-12-07T15:35:07.533Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Some things that this idea doesn't explain:

1. If a shortage of cognitive resources is the problem, why do unemployed people do even less of the things Putnam measures than employed people do?

a. Does the fact of unemployment deplete cognitive resources to a similar or greater degree, perhaps because of loss of status?

b. Am I perhaps mislead by the unemployed people metric, and not comparing like with like? For example, if someone is not working because of disability, I expect that same disability to interfere with volunteer work.

2. No accounting for change in the environment. The omnipresence of advertising could have an effect; the extreme ease of communication could have an effect; both work and community are situated in the physical environment so if just being there demands more resources, that could partially explain it.

a. Although if the mechanism is real, we should expect both work and community to be adversely affected. I note productivity growth has been slowing down, but I have the impression that can be satisfactorily explained by productivity gains from computers achieving saturation and nothing else driving growth. I don't know of any case where we see previously stable productivity actually declining, which the idea predicts.

comment by Benquo · 2018-12-07T19:19:28.141Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When I look at US life expectancy at birth trends it sure seems like we've gotten worse at something per unit effort. I expect there are some other indicators like this for the developed world.

comment by philh · 2018-12-10T15:49:18.932Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

over the course of the 19th cen­tury the av­er­age Lan­cashire op­er­a­tive roughly dou­bled the num­ber of ma­chines tended

ap­prox­i­mately 1⁄4 of the 50-fold in­crease in cloth out­put per worker-hour be­tween 1800 and 1900 was due to each weaver sim­ply op­er­at­ing more looms than they had done ini­tially.

A question jumps out to me: did each individual machine and loom require equal effort at the beginning and end of these periods? It could be that more machines were tended because each machine required less tending.

comment by ryan_b · 2018-12-10T20:51:47.945Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The way they addressed this question was by comparing how much time was spent monitoring the looms versus actively performing tasks. The quote in the article is as follows:

Bessen shows that in the early 19th century, a New England weaver operating a single power loom spent 70-75% of the time watching the loom. By 1900, monitoring without active intervention was reduced to ~20% of the weaver’s time, and actively performing tasks took up 80% of the time. This is because the weaver in 1900 was made to operate 8 power looms.

I don't have access to the Bessen paper currently, though I'll probably go ahead and read it anyway.

comment by philh · 2018-12-12T20:14:59.963Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The quote doesn't say explicitly, so just to make sure we're on the same page: I take from this that yes, when more looms were tended, each loom required less attention. Do you agree?

comment by ryan_b · 2018-12-12T22:54:31.428Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree.

The significant thing is that it was not symmetrical, ie they didn't replace one machine with two machines that each took half as much attention. Working 8 took 80% of the time, so it looks like the 1900 machines each only took 10%, compared to the earlier single machine which took 30%. This suggests to me that the new machines took ~0.33 the attention the earlier ones did. So the improved machines lead to workers "only" working about three times as hard overall.