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Time change (Part 1)

The trouble with the modern world is that we’ve lost our ability to understand and control time.* Time used to be something we used to our advantage. Plant a seed, add some water, and time did the rest (barring a plague of locusts). Time healed all wounds. Time begat wisdom. We revered our elders and put them at the zenith of our culture. The sun rose and the sun set, and the stars wheeled across the heavens at night in a clockwork universe. We could feel the seasons in our bones. We were masters of time. Then someone invented a sundial, and it’s been all downhill ever since.

Everyone I know is too busy and too rushed. If we ever do feel completely serene, centered and at peace with the world we know, that’s a harbinger of certain doom. It’s not simply that we have too much to do, it’s that we are expected to produce at an extraordinary pace. The weekend is steadily evaporating. People send work e-mails at midnight. Even the stripe of society based on volunteer labor — the annual school auction being the prime example — has become frenzied. Your “spare time” has become a slush fund for those who wish to extract from you ever more units of production.

Long ago I wrote a Why Things Are item about the paradox of “time-saving” technologies:

Q. Why do we have time-saving gadgets like fax machines and personal computers, and yet feel just as rushed and harried as ever?

A. There is chaos and lamentation throughout the Why Things Are empire. It seems that we’re always feeling so rushed, despite all our modern technology that’s supposed to save us time and effort — the fax machines, the express overnight mail, the word processing programs on the personal computer, the laserjet printers, the electronic databases, our corporate jet with built-in jacuzzi, and so on.

Where, we ask, does the ”time saved” go? It seems to disappear. And so we find ourselves strangely nostalgic for inkwells and feather pens, for battered typewriters and carbon paper.

This annoying situation is easily explained. These new systems are not designed to save you time. They are designed to increase your output.

If the distinction confuses you, ask your boss. She didn’t buy these gadgets so you could leave work early.

This is a simple phenomenon of industrial engineering. If it becomes possible to do three days’ worth of work in a single day, you won’t suddenly get two days off; instead, the labor market changes the definition of ”one day’s work” (and it reads, ”What used to take three days”).

Of course it reads so quaint now — the tyranny of the fax machine!! EXPRESS OVERNIGHT MAIL!!! But seriously, when people communicated by the old-fashioned postal service there was a built-in padding of time to any transaction. This enabled contemplation, perhaps even revision of one’s thoughts, and some crafting of the language. Today we have entire national debates that start after breakfast and are wrapped up by lunch. (I would tweet more, for example, but view Twitter the way I view the stock market: There are faster people out there who use it all the time and know all the secret maneuvers, and by the time I think of something — a good investment, a smart observation — it’s just too late, the something has already peaked, and my bright notion is plunging toward penny-stock status.)

In this environment, there’s a name for the kind of person who has mastered the art of taking it easy, puttering around, not being rushed, not getting harried, and finding time for the sublime and beautiful things in life: “retiree.”

Things have gotten so bad that, as the Times reports, the people who run the sport of golf are making courses with 15-inch holes, to make the game easier and, more importantly, faster. This desperate maneuver is driven in large part by how rushed we are in the modern world. A round of golf takes 4.5 hours, not including travel to and from the course, the time spent fiddling with equipment, the long excursions in the woods looking for lost balls, the wading into ponds for the same purpose, and the all-important rounds of drinks at the 19th hole. That’s your whole day, basically. So they widen the hole to preposterous dimensions — and let you use whatever equipment you want, such as ball-firing bazookas, the “foot wedge,” hidden magnets under the green to guide the ball to the hole, etc. Purists are aghast, of course, just as they have been since the golfing authorities did away with the mashie and the niblick.

I do not know the answer to the time tyranny problem, and have appended “Part 1″ to this blog item in hopes that at some point an answer will come to me and I can write Part 2. But just as a start, we can say something to ourselves every day, and perhaps even repeat it to others: “I will not be rushed.”

*I have just returned from Spain and Portugal, and am mentally and physically still on UTC+1, which explains why I am writing this at 4:30 in the morning. I may stick to this schedule, because it makes you feel ahead of the game — a fleeting sensation that will no doubt evaporate with the sun’s first rays.

[8:50 a.m. update: Am hopelessly behind.]


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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