The start of the New Year is a good time to talk about Time. About this, we can all agree—there are only twenty four hours in a day. Zillions of companies and persons want a piece of that time from us in order to make money. But that supply of Time is not expandable. Unlike other supplies in the marketplace, this one has no give beyond twenty four hours a day. Note the massive increase in commercial requests for our time in return for our dollars—directly or indirectly—compared to 60 years ago. Instead of three television networks bidding for our time in order to sell advertising, there are over 100 channels on any cable system. There are ever more radio stations, more online blogs and websites, more video games, more music. In 1950, there were no cell phones, no iPhones, no Blackberries, no e-mails, no text messaging, no apps, no E-books, no faxes. Entertainment fare is now 24/7 and expanding rapidly on the Internet.
But there are still only twenty four hours per day. What are these merchants expecting of the consumers’ time? Squeezing more into less time as attention spans shorten, for one. Marketing so irresistibly that people buy far more of these videos and other entertainment services than they have time to listen or to view.
Think of the VCRs and the DVDs piled up at home that have never been seen. Same for many books. The big bestseller on the universe: The Grand Design by scientist Stephen Hawking became status furniture on sitting room tables except for the one in a hundred who actually read that book.
In short, the gap between what we think we have time for when we buy these products and what we actually expend time on is setting records every day.
However, people of all ages are spending more time on casual gaming (75 million Americans is the estimate) than on solitaire or cards—apart from being addicted to competitive video games. So there is some substitution at play here.
E-mails and text messaging are taking a large slice out of the day, in part because they are so cheap and in part because they are so personal. “What gives” here is that less time is being spent on the telephone but by no means in equal measure.
So cheap and easy are modern communications that it is often harder to actually reach people than during the days of the dial phone.
How much time do we spend trying to get someone to return calls or even to react to E-mails (which are increasingly passé in favor of text-messages) during the day or week? After awhile one stops trying to make telephone contact because of the low probability of actually talking to the person you want to reach.
People are so overloaded that just getting them to respond to a friendly letter, call or electronic message requires many repetitions. The banality of abundance is at work here.
On the other hand, where you do get quick replies are from your “friends” with mutual gossip and personal tid-bits drive up the back and forth volume immensely. A 16 year old girl said that she sends 600 text messages a day and “would die without her cell phone.”
Still the sellers are more and more vigorously competing for a piece of the buyers’ time. Where is all this going? First the sales appeal may ostensibly be for the buyers’ time—eg. toys, DVDs—but it really is an appeal to the buyers’ hope or belief that he/she has the time sometime. That is what gives what economists call the “elasticity” to the seemingly finite twenty four hour day. Whether that time is devoted to the program or product is immaterial to the seller once the sale is made. The successful seller is happy.
But what is happening to the buyer? More stuff piles up. More sense of being time burdened when weeks and months pass without getting around to using the purchased goods or services. More susceptibility to buying the newest upgrade or version out of a sense of getting to now what they haven’t had time to get to before with the older purchase.
Moreover, as a society of buyers, we become ever more fractured audiences—especially for national television—and it is less likely that we see or react to the events of the day as a community.
I was reminded of this observation recently when Washington’s current outrages of endemic wars, waste and corruption rattle the public far less than Nixon’s Watergate behavior. In 1974 after Nixon fired his Attorney General and the Special Prosecutor who were investigating his involvement in the Watergate burglary and cover-up, Tennesseans sent 40,000 telegrams to one of their Senators over three days. Members of Congress, even with the ease of E-mail and Twitter, do not get that kind of meaningful volume.
When our time feels overwhelmed and the marketers are banging on our doors for more time claims, what time is there left for necessary solitude, for family and other socializing, for kids playing outside instead of being addicted to indoor screens, even at dinner, for, excuse the words, reflection and contemplation?
It comes down to whether we have any time from our absorption into virtual reality to engage reality, including civil and political realities. A Society whose people do not show up for public meetings, hearings, protests and even local folklore events is a society that is cannibalizing its democracy, its critical sense of community purpose.
Take back some of those discretionary hours from the marketers and electronic entertainers. Devote them to shaping the future for you and your children.