The Blog

Technology and the Loss of Time

In recent months I have begun to notice in precise detail to what extent the Internet and information technology has helped me manage my time and to what degree this technology has inhaled a huge chunk out of my life. Twenty years ago the Internet was not yet a daily activity for most, yet it would occasionally save people time from running down the block to check out a restaurant's menu before deciding where to dine and allow others to send one email after the next without having to run out to the post office for stamps, much less worry about the purchase price for stamps. It seemed, once upon a time, that we suddenly had all this free time to manage as we saw fit, that the Internet liberated us from bank queues and facilitated information such that decisions could be made from the comfort of one's keyboard. Now, almost thirty years of Internet use has given me pause to contemplate the advances this technology has made in my own life and profession versus the immense time drain and anti-socialisation it also presents.

I remember as an undergraduate going to my university's computer laboratory to use the program, Wordstar, to write my research papers as I could not yet afford a personal computer. Even in graduate school, I was fortunate to have the computer laboratory at NYU at my disposal where I would also have access to what was then 56k dial up Internet connection which allowed me to make thorough lists of the library books I would need to take out for that week. I distinctly remember how much time I saved by being able to pop over to the library and run through the stacks, a task rendered lightning fast compared to a manual search in a card catalogue. And when the day finally arrived that I could afford my first computer and printer, I revelled in the notion that I could have my class lectures ready within seconds. Later that same year, I eventually wrote an annotated bibliography program in Hypercard while still in graduate school which facilitated the note taking and writing of my MA thesis given my inability to read handwriting. Life seemed to get easier, my time freer, and the facility to produce ideas seemed greatly assisted by this technology.

Skip to the present day and my feelings about computer technology and the Internet have vastly shifted from my mindset of the mid 1980s. Certainly, I cannot deny that many a discussion with friends results in one of us pulling out our smartphones and googling who the director of Cabin in the Sky (1943) was or what the cost of living in Hong Kong currently is, the Internet tends to act as a sort of virtual arbitrator of truth enacting knowledge that might have once been lent to an encyclopaedia or Guinness Book of World Records. There are websites for just about anything today from shoe size, metric, and currency converters, to websites that will track airplanes, satellites, and space junk, and even virtual spaces which actually announce that you are procatinating as you watch cats "lip sync" to various tunes. The Internet did not so much as unify humans in the quest for knowledge as it exploited the human desire to amuse--or bore, depending on the predisposition--oneself to death through endless animal videos, memes and pseudo-interactive sites which posture the individual's inaction as some form of healthy curiosity which in turn serves as a surrogate to action. While we think we are doing so much, we are actually do very little.

From fitness trackers that can tell us how much and what quality of sleep we achieved last night to companies which use workforce management software to manage employee participation, we are seeing a world where reality is slowly shifting from the palpable and the present, to the screen-bound and intangible. It is becoming more and more frequent that people refer to "meetings" as something that occurs within the confines of their Facebook chat window and the term "friends" is now a nomenclature to refer to someone that you have never met before but who likes your posts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We should be able to stop ourselves from falling into the sinkhole of YouTube pet videos or from spending hours daily arguing with someone simply because they are wrong. But most of us do not. There is something rather addictive about the way that the computer and Internet allow us certain freedoms from the tasks of old while offering us newer ways of losing ourselves, wasting our time. And I do begin to wonder if the time contemplating while standing in a queue at the post office was better spent relaxing my brain from reading and writing over this new form of spending time which has us relentlessly enslaved to at least two or three different electronic devices, texting our every exhalation from spaces like the toilet that perhaps ought to be left for acts of contemplation and silence.