Is Anyone Else's Life as Stupidly Complicated by Digital "Shadow Work" as Mine Is?

May 22, 2024

We seem to have entered a world of anti-leisure and anti-productivity in which the unpaid "shadow work" demanded to keep all the complicated digital bits in motion obliterate our leisure and productivity.

Is your life as stupidly complicated as mine is? Of course it is unless you've withdrawn from all engagement with the digital realm and all devices containing digital components.

To rephrase the question: is anyone else a boiled frog like I am? Yes, a frog slowly boiled by the steadily increasing burdens of the "shadow work" required to maintain a life that has become, without us noticing, dependent on constant unpaid effort to keep all the stuff we now depend on functioning.

There are illusions galore in this mimicry of technological "empowerment:" the illusion that we "own" all the stuff that becomes a brick once a digital component fails or we fail to accept the new terms of service. The illusion that all these services and devices "free us" to enjoy more leisure. The illusion that performing all the unpaid shadow work needed to keep all the complicated stuff functioning is "worth it" rather than a form of digital servitude. The illusion that we have a "choice," an illusion that's broken once we "choose" to opt out of the shadow work and everything ceases to function.

Parody abounds in the digital realm. Pathetically wretched services and products are touted as "Progress" with a capital P. "Consumer choice" when your smart phone screen dies is reduced to buying a replacement phone from one of the phone quasi-monopolies. Do you really want to endure learning a new system, or would you rather bite the bullet and stick with the same monopoly so you don't have to spend unpaid hours trying to figure out a new system?

Our dependence on the quasi-monopoly platforms is complete, and so we are wary of violating the infinitely capacious caprices of their terms of service, which mean exactly what we want them to mean, which means you can be sent to the Demonetization Gulag in Digital Siberia without warning or recourse.

Consider a typical experience of the stupidly complicated time-sink unpaid shadow work we endure on a daily basis. A payment platform that we depend on recently informed me mid-day on May 18 that I was required to update "business information" by May 18 or my ability to access my own earnings would be suspended.

Well, thank you very much for the advance notice. So I navigate their wretchedly confusing site to the "business information" page and discover it's blank: there is literally nothing there. (Metaphorically, how apt.) Okay, so all of us busy digital shadow workers know the drill: reload the page--no dice. Okay, open another browser and try that--nope, the page I need to update to avoid being sent to the Demonetization Gulag is still blank.

It's obviously hopeless now, but we continue to play along because we're trapped in Kafka's Castle, always churning 24/7 with busy-work that is completely unproductive. So we email tech support, knowing it will be useless.

And sure enough, it is utterly useless. The tech rep (or chatbot, who knows) apologizes for the inconvenience, but has no solution. All of us shadow workers know we have to enter the rat-maze again and hope the page loads so we can jump off the train taking us to the Demonetization Gulag. Perhaps our prayers to the Digital Gods and Goddesses are answered, or the Matrix self-corrected, who knows, but the page finally loads hours later and we dutifully enter the same data the platform already had on record. This seems to satisfy the Kafkaesque requirements, and we breathe a sigh of relief.

But wait, there's more! No sooner do we get that unpaid waste of our lives done than we receive another email from the same platform demanding another update to our "business information." Gee, is it really asking too much to send a single email with all your required updates instead of torturing us with a string of emails?

So back we go to the same page and re-enter the exact same information and click "update." Um, is this a parody of technical simplicity and productivity, or is it simply a gigantic waste of time, a form of digital servitude we cannot escape?

Then the final slap of parody: the "how did we do?" email requesting us to waste even more time answering a questionnaire about their wondrous tech support. You mean the tech support I was forced to contact because your site was broken, the tech support which did nothing to address the problem? No thank you, I'm already boiled alive and don't really feel like wasting more of life rating your "service."

Want to sign up for a short-term vacation rental platform? Sort through these 4,000 photos and select all those with a frog (live or boiled) and then move to the next excruciating step of our "validation process."

Please submit photos of your bank statements, a voided check, your big toe, a retinal scan and your passport. Or go ahead and lose access to your own money. That's a heckuva "choice," isn't it?

We're sorry, we cannot accept your form because it's out of date. Oh, do you mean the form on your website?

Please follow the instructions via this link. Um, the link you sent to explain how to navigate your system is dead. It seems monopolies don't need to bother fixing dead links and outdated instructions.

Social critic Ivan Illich's 1981 book Shadow Work describes how the modern wage-earner economy demands unpaid shadow work to do all the necessary domestic / daily-life work so the wage earner can spend hours commuting to work, performing at work and then returning home too drained / zombified to do much in the non-paid-work realm. Highly processed "food" (that makes us ill) is offered up as a "time saver" and a plethora of "conveniences" (that break down after a few years of service) are available for purchase to reduce the shadow work.

The digital realm has created an entire new universe of unpaid shadow work over which we have little choice or control other than to give up access to our own earnings and the proliferating accounts we now need to function in the digitally-dependent world: the airline booking accounts, the subway / bridge toll accounts, the insurance accounts, the bank accounts, the rental car accounts, the healthcare accounts, and so on, dozens upon dozens of accounts that must constantly be updated, new passwords entered and recorded in our own paperwork, and then all the accounts we might need to maintain a livelihood.

This digitally boiled frog looks at the time-sink of unpaid shadow work required to "be productive" (heh) and wonders: what happened to the techno-enthusiasts' promise of greater leisure? We seem to have entered a world of anti-leisure and anti-productivity in which the unpaid shadow work demanded to keep all the complicated digital bits in motion obliterate our leisure and productivity.

This is a world ruled by rather tiresome irony and parody.

New podcast: CHS on Leafbox (1:20 hrs)--authentic community, going grey, Doom Loops and more.

My recent books:

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases originated via links to Amazon products on this site.

Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $18, (Kindle $8.95, audiobook $13.08 (96 pages, 2022) Read the first chapter for free (PDF)

The Asian Heroine Who Seduced Me (Novel) print $10.95, Kindle $6.95 Read an excerpt for free (PDF)

When You Can't Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebook; audiobook Read the first section for free (PDF)

Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States (Kindle $9.95, print $24, audiobook) Read Chapter One for free (PDF).

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake (Novel) $4.95 Kindle, $10.95 print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 Kindle, $15 print)
Read the first section for free

Become a $3/month patron of my work via

Subscribe to my Substack for free

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Rick B. ($300), for your beyond-outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.


Thank you, Charles C.W. ($70), for your splendidly generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Thank you, Rich T. ($70), for your magnificently generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.


Thank you, Patrick B. ($70), for your monumentally generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Error: Embedded data could not be displayed.