Running out of time

by Yule Heibel on November 8, 2005

From the Forum for the Future, a pointer to a new book edited by Tim Aldrich, About Time. It sounds like they’re on to something:

Despite the burgeoning army of machines designed to save us time – from cars and aeroplanes to dishwashers and microwaves – we don’t seem to have any more of it on our hands. We simply fill the space we clear with more things to do – consuming more, spending more – and then look around for new ways of saving time.

The fallout from a society hooked on speed is everywhere. It’s affecting our health – sixty per cent of the adult population in the UK report that they suffer from stress, and more than half of these say that this has worsened over the last 12 months. It’s affecting our family-life, with a quarter of British families sharing a meal together only once a month. And it affects our environment too: air travel is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, accelerating climate change as we speed around the world.

The faster we live, the faster we consume, the faster we waste energy and the faster we pollute the planet. The faster we seem to be running out of time.

Forum for the Future’s new book, edited by Tim Aldrich, features essays using the idea of time to take a different view of sustainable development. Contributors include the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock, author Jay Griffiths and Will Hutton, CEO of the Work Foundation, as well as Jonathon Porritt.

All argue for a reassessment of how time is perceived and used in modern society.

The breakdown in our relationship with time is a root cause of the crisis of unsustainability. “About Time” investigates why and, with many practical suggestions, shows us a new way through. [from here]

…And (ahem), that’s all I have time for today…


melanie November 9, 2005 at 4:55 am

This post reminded me of something I heard on the radio the other day about how American families rarely eat meals together, have half the number of dinner parties they used to in the 60s, don’t go for picnics anymore and even don’t go to church as much as they used to. But it was related to diminishing social contacts, rather than time, and was trying to explain the epidemic of depression.

Btw, I don’t think all these machines are designed to save time. I think they’re designed to make us more productive in the limited amount of time available.

Yule Heibel November 9, 2005 at 1:16 pm

Agreed — many machines are there just so that we can DIY vs hiring someone else to do (thereby eliminating a small-jobs economy, too), and they enslave us to them.

melanie November 9, 2005 at 5:07 pm

I was thinking the same thing about DIY. We have to do the small jobs ourselves and go shopping for the necessary tools. Shopping seems to be a big part of modern work!

The two ideas of time and social contacts are closely related. The interviewee I heard on the radio the other day was Robert D Putnam (Harvard) and his book is Bowling Alone.

Tim Aldrich December 9, 2005 at 12:29 pm

Saw your comments about the book. Putnam’s work has influenced some of the work I was involved in at Forum for the Future.

I’d agree that machines are not generally designed to save time. (That is a press release you are quoting 😉 Rather many items are sold as time saving machines. Indeed – and I don’t think this is in the book – a recent poll on the most significant invention of the 20th century identified the washing machine for the time it saved women (whose job it was previously to wash everything, and often still is).

The connection with technology is a multifarious and complex one. Many of the technologies we surround ourselves with are inherently social – cell phones, internet enabled PCs, blackberries – in that they are communication-based. And yet they are often considered antisocial – time is a finite resource: the more time you’re on the blackberry, the less time you are concentrating on dining companions, your kids etc…

As with most things it comes down to balance. As, indeed, I hope the book suggests. However, as it is an edited collection, so many views abound.

Yule Heibel December 9, 2005 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for commenting, Tim. It’s funny you should mention the washing machine: For this entry, I was tempted to recount a conversation I had overheard in the early 80s. A group of young women were sitting next to my table at one of the University of British Columbia cafeterias. They were talking about their housing arrangements, whether living off campus was better than on, etc. One of them told the story of renting a suite (“bed-sit”) from an older Vancouver dowager. The student asked whether she would be able to have access to a washing machine, and the older lady shot back this response: “My dear, many years ago my husband offered to buy me a washing machine, and I told him that he must be out of his mind! The next thing he would expect, had such a contraption entered our house, was that I would do the laundry!” So she never got a washing machine … because she was of a class and generation that was used to having someone come to her house to pick up the dirty laundry, take it somewhere, wash it, iron it, fold it, and return it in a nicely wrapped package. Having grown up with those services, she knew that if she allowed a DIY machine into the house, she would indeed be doing it herself.

I had just spent 3 years in Munich, where I also had used a laundry service, at least for sheets, large items, woolens. Frau Mehringer owned a laundry in Schwabing, and while it was an expensive luxury for me, it was a delight to have press-ironed and folded sheets and pillowcases. Boy, that was nice. And I always had a lovely chat with Fr. Mehringer, found out what was going in the neighbourhood, how she was doing, what trends she was noticing in terms of her customer base, and so on. It was a “social moment,” which I paid for, but which saved me a lot of time & aggravation, and which connected me to the community and helped keep a small business going.

I believe there are a couple of drop-off laundries in Victoria, where I now live and which used to rely on Chinese labour for nearly everything, but they are essentially laundromats that let you leave your stuff with someone. They are unclean, they’re impersonal. (Fr. Mehringer’s business, which she owned, had a counter at front beyond which no customers passed: the place was spotless; Fr. Mehringer knew your name and greeted you when you came through the door: the “services” I can think of here rely on transient workers who couldn’t care less about you — or about the business that is providing this low-paying McJob for them…)

I read a curious book by Freeman Dyson recently, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet (the kind of book that has the hairs of many kinds of enviro-conscious hippies standing on end, because of course part of Dyson’s charming optimism is his unshakeable faith in technology). Anyway, one of the stories he told really stuck with me, probably because it had to do with women’s domestic labour. He wrote that his mother, being of a certain British mid-range middle-class (i.e., nothing spectacularly high-class or aristocratic) and living in a certain period of time (prewar Britain, before the “efficiencies” of the 20th century fully caught up with it), naturally had a staff of servants, which included a cook, a housekeeper, a nanny. This was what freed up her time and allowed her to do her good works, which focussed on getting birth control out to the masses, especially under-privileged women. If she had had to do the cooking, cleaning, and all the childcare herself, she wouldn’t have been able to spread enlightened and practical strategies for liberating an army of oppressed women from the ravages of unwanted children.

And the machines haven’t been invented that could have freed up her time like that, either. It still all gets down to people, which gets us back to how people use machines, the aspect you’re addressing when you mention the communication-based technologies we rely on so much today, and gets me back to the question of economics. Time is a finite resource, you’re absolutely right. Since I’m one of those people who won’t let go of the idea that economics underpins pretty much everything we do, I think that part of the problem might be that we’re not being analytical (or transparent) enough about how economics infiltrates the management and the marketing of time. Dyson’s mother understood that perhaps better than the customer who, bombarded by advertising about the latest gizmo, succumbs to yet another gadget. Money will not multiply time. It can’t. There is no arithmetic between the two, except that having more of the former allows you to spend the latter in a way that will ameliorate your passage.

Oh well. I must sign off now because I have to do the laundry for four people (my household). Really. No kidding!

melanie December 9, 2005 at 8:51 pm

When I was a small child in Australia in the 1950s we had a washing machine. Before that my mother used to do her laundry in the copper and get the moisture out with a wringer. Compared to many people living in the UK at that time who either didn’t have running water at all, or only had cold water, she was lucky. But overall, it’s possible that her workload increased because having such ‘modern conveniences’ enabled her to go out and get a job. So we had more money than we’d otherwise have had. We traded her time for money.

During the ’50s there was a labour shortage, so the country began importing migrants. They did the jobs, we were told, that we long-term residents no longer wanted to do. In fact they only did them because any pay at all was better than what they could get back home. We were able to employ an Italian guy to do the garden once a month. But the long boom continued and these immigrants slowly moved up to better jobs (or their kids did), so we imported more and more of them. By the mid-70s we not only had to abolish the White Australia policy, but put an end to all those restrictions that used to keep women out of the workforce, especially out of ‘men’s work’. In many states, for example, women had to resign once they got married. Now that has gone and teaching has become both feminized and relatively low-paid.

Nowadays the occupational stratification of the workforce is not as obvious as it was in the 50s and 60s. If you hire a cleaner, you’re as likely to get an Australian-born student as a Filipina. You can order groceries on the web and get them delivered (our local grocer used to do that himself in the 50s and we knew him well). But, as you put it, they’re all doing McJobs. We have reached a point where we have a rather large ‘reserve army’ of willing labour (known by my colleagues in the economics profession as the ‘natural rate of unemployment’) who are prepared to take on all these menial tasks until they can move on.

The master-servant mentality has gone (it was very prevalent among my grandmother’s generation), but we haven’t exactly moved into the classless society either. What we’re doing is making ourselves more productive per unit of time and adding more labourers (and therefore time) to do the less productive jobs.

melanie December 9, 2005 at 8:52 pm

Sorry for the single paragraph!

Yule Heibel December 20, 2005 at 9:03 pm

Melanie, sorry I can’t fix the paragraph bug in manilla comments — you need to put the pointy bracket < followed by br and a closing pointy bracket in if you want paragraph breaks. I don’t know why — until several months ago, it was enough to hit return.

Your laundry extrapolation makes me think that it would be possible to write an entire social history of women from this perspective (it’s probably been done — I just don’t know about it yet). Edgar Degas’s Laundresses were a social art history hit for a while, with speculation about how they reflected (oops, bad word: good social history does not talk about things “reflecting” ideology…) Degas’s and other 19th century Parisian male attitudes toward working class women. But consider the history within the social stratification of women in 19th century Paris, which gets back to $$ and who had the ability to buy what service(s). …And you’re adding a whole other dimension with the immigration angle, too. Very interesting.

PS: I can remember my mother doing laundry on a hot stove, boiling the crap out of the linens, and yup, she had a mangle, too. God, what a job. On the other hand, her mother had had a washerwoman (actually: two washerwomen) come to her house every other week to take care of this stuff. Which also then speaks of the tremendous social sliding that became possible within modern society (upward mobility means there’s also downward mobility).

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