It’s the 25th anniversary of the web – are you more productive now than in the past?

Last updated: 28 November 2019

As today marks the 25th anniversary of the web and with the world’s information at our fingertips and more processing power than Apollo 11 in our pockets, one would imagine that humans are now more productive in their daily activities than ever before. Now that we no longer need to retrieve files, research precedents and dig through archives, we should have more time to devote to the good stuff: thinking and doing. Or so the argument goes…

According to a new poll from Nominet, the internet company best known for running the .uk internet infrastructure, almost half (46%) of Brits say best thing the web has given each of us is an ability to quickly find answers to our questions. To mark the anniversary, Nominet is inviting web users to add their own milestones and predictions to its online Story of the web, which features the defining moments that have contributed to the web’s success.

In our graphic below, we can see the huge contrast in office technology between the 1980s and today. But do our shiny new gadgets really help us to work smarter?

set 3 oldset 3 modern

The desktop of the past and near future, imagined by Gemalto in 2013.

One thing that seems almost certain is that technology hasn’t allowed us to work fewer hours. This ABC report claims that average working hours slowly but surely increased during the computing revolution of the 1990s, and also cites research which shows that the average American now works an extra month each year compared to the 1970s. South Korea is typically seen as the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and yet a 2012 survey reported that its citizens work the longest hours of any OECD country. Add to this the fact that (thanks to mobile technology) many of us now work from home in addition to our contracted office hours, and it would seem that tech is doing little to offset our workload.

The flip-side to this is the long-standing concern that increased computerisation will eventually create mass unemployment.  Ever since the Luddite movement of the industrial revolution, manual workers in particular have worried about what technology could mean for their job prospects, and a report from Oxford University has suggested 45% of America’s jobs could be automated or computerised over the next two decades.  But despite these cautionary tales, progress in recent centuries has never led to sustained mass unemployment, with the labor market always eventually bouncing back by creating new roles for those whose jobs are lost.

So are we more productive thanks to our tech, or do we simply create more work for ourselves as a result? The answer, as ever, is somewhere in between these two extremes, but studying productivity per worker since the start of the computing revolution appears to support the view that today’s labor force is smarter and more efficient than that of yesteryear. The graphic below shows that, since 1960, output per worker has more than doubled, increasing by 168% over the past half century.

So the next time someone tells you your smartphone is making you dumb, you’ll know how to respond. If you’ve bookmarked this page, that is.