The Death of Time

5 June 2018 | Think­ing in New Ways

What would David DiS­al­vo (@neuronarrative) say today? Six years ago, in an arti­cle for Forbes [link], DiS­al­vo wote an arti­cle about “8 Rea­sons Why Peo­ple Feel Lost in Their Lives.” Here is rea­son num­ber five:

Cog­ni­tive Over­load

This is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est on the list to describe, because it affects all of us, and with increas­ing inten­si­ty. We sim­ply have too much on our men­tal plates day-in and day-out to man­age effec­tive­ly. With­out a qual­i­ty exter­nal sys­tem for help­ing to man­age it all, we can’t help but feel over­loaded, and that con­tributes to a feel­ing of being out of sorts with the respon­si­bil­i­ties and demands we face end­less­ly. Our brains didn’t evolve for non­stop infor­ma­tion-dri­ven, con­sumerism-dri­ven, tech­nol­o­gy-laden soci­eties, so we have to find tools to offload our cog­ni­tive load, or sink.

It has got­ten worse. Much worse. I’m see­ing this every­where. Peo­ple are in a time trap. The trap is that, no mat­ter the task, every­thing — and I do mean every­thing! — must be done faster, faster, faster.

  • Amazon.com (@amazon) has more “Prime” mem­bers than ever before. One rea­son: the cus­tomer gets what’s pur­chased faster. In some cas­es, one can get same-day deliv­ery.
  • The Globe and Mail in Toron­to has report­ed that you can “Jump to the front of the line with this app [link] You’ll love the open­ing of the piece by Josh O’Kane: “Ray Red­dy is obsessed with mil­lisec­onds. The aver­age per­son might not notice when some­thing is five mil­lisec­onds too slow, but it affects peo­ples’ deci­sions any­way, he says. The more time we save, the more effi­cient, the more pro­duc­tive, the hap­pi­er we are.”
  • I remem­ber when I would come back to the office and have a stack of paper phone mes­sages. I could pon­der which to respond to, and when. But we’ve moved from phone calls to emails to SMS and Instant Reply actions on our phones. Didn’t I read about an app that checks your cal­en­dar for you and then com­mits you to a meet­ing if it thinks you have the time. Or was that a night­mare?
  • We used to eat at home. Then came din­ing out; some­one else made our food. But that was not fast enough: we soon need­ed fast food (in its ear­ly days, the founders of @McDonalds timed their order-to-deliv­ery rates with stop­watch­es). Now: we can pick up food that has been made up by some­one who makes it seem like it was made at home.
  • I have no proof, but my guess is that cor­po­rate reports are gen­er­at­ed in half the time or less than they were a decade ago. (Whether they have been thought-through is anoth­er mat­ter.)
  • Have you heard of the 3-minute prayer? Sure you have enough time to check it out? [link]
  • Try typ­ing this into your search engine: “things that are now done faster and quick­er” then sit back and watch the results. Top of my list is by Dustin Wax on Life­hack: “50 Tricks to Get Things Done Faster, Bet­ter, and More Eas­i­ly” [link]
  • It usu­al­ly takes months to hike the Appalachi­an Trail. Heard about “Heather “Anish” Ander­son [who] set the Appalachi­an Trail speed record yes­ter­day, fin­ish­ing the approx­i­mate­ly 2,190-mile route in 54 days”? That was in 2015. Read more here. [link]
  • Who’s real­ly win­ning the fast-faster-fastest com­pe­ti­tion. You might check the cur­rent list­ing of “15 Fastest Things in the Uni­verse” [link].

The real­i­ty is that those who are grow­ing up with Instant Reply tech­nol­o­gy have no rec­ol­lec­tion of any­thing dif­fer­ent. For these, shall we call them “dig­i­tal natives”, the phys­i­cal world is bro­ken sim­ply because it does not move at the speed of their dig­i­tal lives. I see this reac­tion to life over and over with would-be entre­pre­neurs whose start-up ideas are designed to “fix” some­thing in the phys­i­cal world that is “just too slow”.

Those old­er baby boomers who were born just a few decades before dig­i­tal natives aren’t hap­py. They find the dig­i­tal world over­whelm­ing­ly fast in almost every aspect, as their tem­po­ral clocks have been shaped by the pace of the phys­i­cal world.

I’m not that old and yet I have a mem­o­ry and appre­ci­a­tion of my par­ents who coun­selled me that “a stitch in time saves nine”, “haste makes waste”, “no wine before it’s time”, “you can­not fake farm­ing”, and “if you don´t have time to do it right the first time, how are you ever going to have the time to do it over again?” (Oh, no! Do I hear you say­ing, “How quaint!”)

Please do not get me wrong. Time has always been a fas­ci­na­tion and chal­lenge around the world. And improv­ing time-to-com­ple­tion rates is not, in itself, a bad thing. You might have heard the word “progress” in my pre­sen­ta­tions. I’m for it, not against it. I’m think­ing of all the mod­ern appli­ca­tions invent­ed to track time [link] and how much progress has been made over the years. Con­sid­er naval nav­i­ga­tion and the cre­ation of Green­wich Mean Time so sailors could coor­di­nate as they cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ed the globe [link]. Con­sid­er the arrival of the loco­mo­tive train engine and the need to coor­di­nate the sched­ul­ing of trains across a net­work so that the new tech­nol­o­gy could have max­i­mal pay­off [link]. Con­sid­er the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of fac­to­ries and the need to coor­di­nate and syn­chro­nise the work of large num­bers of peo­ple via dis­crete yet con­nect­ed tasks [link]. Good things have hap­pened by mak­ing the world faster.

Yet, let me beg you to con­sid­er as well what may be lost by the wor­ship of even faster in and of itself:

  • The time, will and desire to play and exper­i­ment. There is an inher­ent trade-off between doing some things fast and doing them slow­er and con­tem­pla­tive. Hence the ques­tion must be asked: Should this par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge be done faster or slow­er? That is a pro­found­ly impor­tant judge­ment we must make count­less times each day, and get­ting that wrong sets us down the wrong path from the get-go.
  • One could say that the fuel required to go faster comes from the time reserved for rest­ing. Has the “always on”, got­ta-move-faster world sim­ply dri­ven us to a point of exhaus­tion?
  • Fast, in many cir­cum­stances, in not a whole lot of fun. And while fun may not be the pri­ma­ry objec­tive, there is lots of evi­dence to sug­gest that hav­ing fun make most work more engag­ing for peo­ple. Has going ever-faster cre­at­ed a prob­lem with engag­ing the work we have to do?
  • Sources of mean­ing come from both doing the work and the results it gen­er­ates. So, what if that work blazes by so fast that one can­not even think about what was done because of what must be done next — and quick­ly?
  • Human inter­ac­tion can­not be con­tin­u­ous­ly accel­er­at­ed. Soon, ever-faster human inter­ac­tions reach a point where trust breaks down and mis­un­der­stand­ing emerges.
  • Think about the faster vs fur­ther conun­drum. If one wants to get to know a coun­try, fly­ing over it at jet speed is not going to get you where you want to go. Some­times speed lim­its how deep one can explore. Read­ing a nov­el is not the same as read­ing a two-page syn­op­sis.

I’m not try­ing to start an anti-fast club. If you are in a burn­ing build­ing, get­ting out faster is impor­tant. If you are doing a mun­dane, repet­i­tive task, faster does seem to be bet­ter. It’s worth not­ing, how­ev­er, that your con­cept of hav­ing time dies the minute you don’t have enough of it to do your job well, or to appre­ci­ate what you are doing, or to take time to think about new and per­haps bet­ter ways to get a job done.

My point is sim­ply this: faster is not always the answer. As nov­el­ist Tom Rob­bins once said, “The trou­ble with the fast lane is that all the move­ment is hor­i­zon­tal. And I like to go ver­ti­cal some­times.”

Joseph PistruiJoseph Pistrui (@nextsensing) is Pro­fes­sor of Entre­pre­neur­ial Man­age­ment at IE Busi­ness School in Madrid. He also leads the glob­al Nextsens­ing Project, which he found­ed in 2012.

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