Technology has given us more time than ever … to waste on technology

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The team of Apple engineers who built the first Macintosh were lifesavers. Or, at least, that’s what they were — or could be — according to a quirky bit of Steve Jobs motivational thinking. One afternoon in August 1983, the 28-year-old Jobs came up with an unusual way to coax the Mac engineers into making the machine boot faster.

“How many people are going to be using the Macintosh?” Jobs asked. “A million? No, more than that. In a few years, I bet five million people will be booting up their Macintoshes at least once a day.”

His idea was that, should the Mac be adopted by five million users, and should the team be able to shave 10 seconds off its boot time, this added up to 50 million seconds saved every single day. “Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes,” Jobs continued. “So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?”

The engineers thought so, and over the next couple of months they worked hard so that Jobs got his faster boot time.

Tech’s big promise

The story strikes a chord because it sums up one of technology’s biggest promises: saving us all time. If there is one guiding principle behind every one of today’s tech giants it is this.

Google saves us time searching for information; reminding us with every search that it has delivered millions of possible results in 0.66 seconds. Facebook saves us time on social interactions, since its algorithms select only those details about friend’s lives that it thinks we need to know. Amazon saves us time on delivering products, since we no longer need to wait in line at the store and can have a product in our hands with just a few clicks and an increasingly short wait. Apple saves us time on demonstrating that we are a superior, high status individual, since the iPhone in our pockets and the MacBook in our bag signals to potential mates that we are among society’s most discerning and successful members.

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And so it goes on. NFC payment technologies save us the time of pulling out our wallet. Email saves us time posting letters (and now messaging apps like Snapchat save time on sending emails.) Kindles let us know exactly how long is left of a particular book we’re reading. Tinder streamlines the dating process into a simple swipe left or right. Et cetera.

“…in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine.”

The idea that technology can do extraordinary things for time saving is not new. An influential 1960 essay, “Cyborgs and Space,” by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, introduced the idea that the melding of human and machine would have an extraordinary impact on our free time. The essay suggested that a sufficiently advanced space suit would be but one example of a self-regulating man-machine system, able to take care of problems so that we would have one less chore to consider.

“If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine,” the authors wrote. “The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.”

By the 1970s and 1980s, the idea that technology would free us from drudgery and give us all more free time was everywhere. In the 1979 book The Mighty Micro, author Christopher Evans predicts how technology will have advanced by the millenium to the point that we can enjoy “a twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty.”

An erroneous prediction

Needless to say, this hasn’t happened exactly. Instead, technology has saved us time on dozens of tasks, but we seem busier than ever. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa writes about this in the book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, in which he describes the paradox of a world in which the more apps we download to streamline our lives seems to add to the overload.

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As Rosa writes, “The ‘tempo of life’ has increased, and with it stress, hecticness, and lack of time … In almost every sphere of social life there are enormous gains in time by means of technology, [but] we don’t have any time.” One of Rosa’s points is that technology has opened up new possibilities we could never have previously dreamed of, but this had added new complications.

Who hasn’t started researching a single statistic, only to find themselves watching some tangentially connected music video on YouTube?

Sure, productivity apps and the like can help us carry out these tasks more efficiently, but many of them are tasks we wouldn’t previously be doing. Consider, for instance, the way that the internet’s hyperlinked structure has changed the way that we research information. While it has doubtless helped to democratize information, and saves time versus visiting a library to look up information, it has also opened up myriad potential rabbit holes of information it’s easy to get lost in. Who hasn’t started researching a single statistic, only to find themselves watching some tangentially connected music video on YouTube?

This illustrates the double-edged sword of technology. As jobs can be carried out (theoretically) faster, there is also more we are expected to do. Emails take a comparatively short time to respond to so there is an expectation we should respond quickly. A related example was the way that companies issued smartphones to employees, beginning in the mid-2000s. This was initially presented as a reward to hard-working employees, but carried with it the implicit understanding that employees would be more accessible outside of regular working hours.

After all, who wouldn’t reply to an email on a family holiday when it only takes a minute? And if you don’t do, Bob from the next cubicle certainly will…

Is there a backlash brewing?

Decoupling time and technology is not easy. But a few people are trying. From February 23, the Wyndham Grand hotel chain will be piloting a scheme in which they offer guest 5 percent off their room rate if they agree to lock their phones away in a timed lockbox for the duration of their stay.

“In my own life, I see how my phone has crept into those spare minutes waiting in a line, sitting at a restaurant waiting, or even when I’m on the floor playing with my kids,” Noelle Nicolai, the Wyndham Grand “resident reconnector” who developed the initiative, told Digital Trends. “We’ve seen the same at our hotels, with many guests distracted from each other while on vacation; less interpersonal interaction and more screen time. We’re in the business of memory making, so we wanted to create a program that would result in uninterrupted fun and family time, by removing the distractions that come with today’s technology.”

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Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

It’s a cute idea, and hopefully one that will catch on. But is it part of a bigger backlash against the way that technology has gobbled up our time under the guise of saving it? A look at today’s tech giants reveals how difficult this change will be to make. Big technology platforms such as Google and Facebook are, after all, based on continuous user engagement in order to bring in the cash. Even projects like Google’s self-driving car, which would appear to save us time, is really a covert attempt to open up an extra couple of hours each day to use its money-making services.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the denizens of Silicon Valley, a place where 70-hour work weeks are a badge of honor, isn’t the best group of people to help us save time and lead relaxed, lower stress lives. After all, even in the example of the Mac team’s “life saving” efforts, they did so by working ridiculous hours for months on end. Things may be changing, though.

Apple, meanwhile, has revealed that it is responding to concerns about smartphone addiction

Recently Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is busy making changes intended to actually decrease the amount of time people spend using it. The aim is that, by doing this, people will experience an improvement in the quality of time they spend browsing Facebook.

Apple, meanwhile, has revealed that it is responding to concerns about “smartphone addiction” among young people by providing new tools for monitoring the time users spend staring at their iPhones. These are likely to arrive with iOS 12 later this year.

Making changes so that technologies really do save us time, rather than just giving the illusion of it, is a challenge — but possibly an achievable one. Should concerns like that of smartphone addiction gain momentum it’s possible to imagine other companies following the lead of Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook.

But in a world in which more and more low-end jobs will be carried out by A.I. — and the power of interconnectivity will make those higher up the food chain more sought after — perhaps tech just needs to give up on the pretence that it’s designed to make our lives simpler and easier.

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