Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why We Have Time Inflation

This blog has been around for seven years now.  If I wanted to write a boring post (even more boring than usual, anyway), I could document significant changes that have happened in that time, both in myself and in the world.  Or I could draw attention to what has stayed constant throughout that time.  And I'm sure the day will come when I will be tempted to do such a retrospective.  But this year is not that year.  While much has changed in seven years, it's still such a blip on the radar screen in terms of an average human lifespan.  I'm more intrigued by the changes that can occur over a long lifetime, like what it must be like for a 70-year-old now to reflect upon what has changed in a half century (I'm struck by Bob Dylan telling Rolling Stone magazine in an interview published this week that "When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot"). 

But for all of the paradigm-shifting cataclysmic events that have occurred throughout human history, I think we take one remarkable constant for granted.  Every day is 24 hours.  Yes, we've found artificial ways to prolong our ability to be productive in a day (e.g. electricity, caffeine), and we've innovated ways to increase the amount of days that a typical person spends on this Earth.  But the day itself as a unit of time has not increased or decreased.  And this is somewhat remarkable because over time most human phenomena increases.  Our possessions accumulate.  Our memories become crammed.  Our population grows, our financial markets exhibit inflation, our students' grades inflate.

But in terms of time expenditure, our innovation should allow us to do the opposite.  Clearly, a lot of tasks that we do take less time than they used to.  Communicating across distance is absurdly easier than it ever has been.  Producing written documents for dissemination is absurdly easier.  Copying most products is absurdly easier (I think of the story told at Bob Uecker's statue ceremony--before he found his niche as a broadcaster, Uecker briefly worked as a scout.  The story goes that he once sent in a scouting report that had mashed potato and gravy stains.  But people forget how difficult it was to re-copy something that had been hand-written.  I'm sure a lot of documents back then had stains on them).  Speaking of potatoes and gravy, throughout human history, one of the biggest time sucks has been the process of putting food on the table.  But now, preparing meals is absurdly easier than it has ever been.

There has been a decrease in time spent working in America, but I think one can make the case that the decrease hasn't been commensurate with our increases in efficiency (A think tank called the New Economics Foundation advocates for a worldwide 21-hour work week.  Shockingly, governments and industries have been slow to embrace this standard).  Meanwhile, nobody talks about "time inflation."  While the time in a day stays the same, the time we devote to participating or observing particular events grows.  I would love to see some stats on whether business lunches and committee meetings are longer than they used to be.  What I do know from stats is that in the last 100 years, the amount of days that K-12 students go to school has doubled, and the school day has gotten longer.  When I was in kindergarten, our class was split into the "morning" kids and the "afternoon" kids.  Now it is unthinkable that kindergartners would go home at lunch.  Movies today are on average 20 minutes longer than movies produced during Hollywood's "Golden Age."  In that same time frame, baseball games have gotten 30 minutes longer.  Thirty years ago, night baseball games used to start at 7:35 p.m. local time, so that they would be done by roughly 10:00.  Now they start at 7:10 and usually last well past 10:00.  Thirty years ago, NFL games on Sundays were scheduled for either Noon (Central time) or 3:30 p.m.  Now they are Noon or 3:25.

Conventional wisdom is that attention spans have gotten shorter in recent years, but how does that accord with the reality that we are doing things longer?  My theory is that as it has become harder to sustain attention on any one task, and we frequently have at our disposal means to divert our attention, we really aren't doing things longer, we are doing more things in a diluted time block.  The first known use of the word "multitask" was in 1966--not coincidentally, about the time that there is an observable uptick in length of events.  For all of the revolutionary changes that occurred in that decade, the invention of this word may be the most underrated.  People now find it easy to sit through a three and one half hour baseball game because they are spending a good chunk of that time staring at electronic devices in their hands.  Take away the devices, and I'm guessing there would be a great outcry about the length (and unwieldy pace) of the game. 

And with that, I think this blog post is done.  It only took me about three hours, during which I did about four other tasks.


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