TechKnow: Tech-tock: Technology the Time Saviour?

Yusuf Osman

Do you remember the old days when time was slow? You had to walk to a payphone, slice your own bread, open your own can of beans? Hell, you even had to cook your own beans. I don’t, but you get the point.

At some stage we realised that technology could be used to save time, and on that premise the agenda was pushed forward into the booming industry we have today. Years on, did it deliver on that promise?

For a lot of things, we would never dream of going back. I would not want to hand-wash my clothes, nor do I ever want to don a pair of gloves to wash my dishes again. As such a lot of products save us time, or at least allow us to do something we would rather do with it. But before the age of the computer, the Internet and the Blackberry, did we feel like we didn’t have enough hours in the day to fit in all our non-electronic tasks? I don’t remember the good old days, but I can imagine that we didn’t feel that there were not enough hours in the day to handwrite the minutes of our ten-minute meeting.

We all feel rather pressed for time. Why would that be? Probably because we are doing far too many things. The Internet could save you time, but it doesn’t if you spend your time aimlessly browsing an activity you didn’t do before. I’ve had my Palm TX for two weeks now, and I don’t believe it has saved me any time, I’ve spent time organising the information on my it, installing new software, and syncing it with my computer.

The Palm TX is great. Previous to this, I used a Fujitsu-Loox Pocket PC. And the difference between the two is the same as the Windows/Mac OS divide. I believe that there is no difference in the speed and operation of my Palm and the Loox that I had. However the Palm has a lower processor clock speed, yet seems just as nippy. Video plays like a dream. The screen is absolutely gorgeous (even though it isn’t VGA), the WiFi and Bluetooth works superbly (and without the needless configuration that I had to do on my PPC), and I love the form factor, or the way it feels in my hand. And it’s a steal at £249/$299 —considerably cheaper than the cost of my PPC. I’m managing to find equally powerful software for my Palm and although I’ve yet to experience any problems, the initial user experience is very smooth.

It has been a great two weeks. I feel a lot more in control. I have a great memory. I remember everything until the last minute at which point it slips my mind and I miss an appointment. My Palm helps me to remember… but only if I remember to enter information and then look at it.

So does technology that claims to save time actually become a method of wasting more time? As soon as you log on to the ‘net, the battle against viruses, spam, and spyware begins. You start to research your next term paper, and spend the first hour emailing, half an hour deleting spam and then wading through pop-ups. Why not switch off the connection, go to the library and do your research the old fashioned way? Voila! You gain TIME!

I’m not suggesting that technology doesn’t deliver because many times it does. The rest of the time it’s just a vicious cycle: gadgets claim to save time but actually you waste time installing them, reading manuals, and learning how to use the damn things.

So what we find is a spawn of new industries that help you to save time on your new gadgets. A quick search on Google will bring up a whole host of solutions aimed to help you save time using the technology that you bought… to save you time. There are companies that will collect your CD collection to transfer onto your iPod or list your items on ebay. A plethora of tools help you search faster, read faster, work faster.

We find that technology is only time saving if either it does something you would already have done but better or quicker, or it allows you to do something else. There is no doubt that the mobile phone, the Internet, my lovely PDA, and the other gadgets we like to surround ourselves with can help and do enrich our lives. But increasingly we are being bombarded with toys that end someplace unused. Forgotten. I call that place the Frustration Drawer. I keep mine under my bed.

Kimberly Springer

When Yusuf showed me the searchable free time function on his new hand held PDA, the Palm TX, I had the usual gadget envy. How cool to have something that can tell you when you’re free. Then, on second thought, if I need a gadget to tell me when I’m free am I really… free?

Frankfurt School curmudgeon Theodor Adorno would say no. In his essay on free time, Adorno makes the point that the nefarious culture industries and capitalism have so taken over our lives that our “free” time is now highly constructed and its defining characteristic is that we’re not working. Were it not for exploitative work, our free time would be autonomously defined and not dependent on entertainment and gadgets designed to convince us that we are, in fact, free.

As such, the rise of the DIY television show in its many stripes (cooking, cleaning, building, parenting) insures that our free time is productive. In that sense, the cooptation of time by late stage capitalism busyness and the promise that technology will give us more free time is untenable. And, yet, that does not stop us okay, I’ll speak for myself it does not stop me from buying technology that I think will save time so that I can grab hold of some pleasure. Usually my free time consists of downloading manuals and figuring out how to program machines, like VCRs, DVD players, and podcast aggregators all so that when I do have free time I have something to do. It’s a Sisyphean bargain.

Sales pitches for gadgets, such as home recording devices (e.g., TiVO, Sky+, and new Freeview boxes) promise that we can manage our time better if we have the right combination of technology and planning. It’s a gender-free argument but one rooted in the post-WWII emergence of planned obsolescence and domestic science.

In Betty Friedan’s America, the feminine mystique was what a certain group of college-educated women experienced when they failed to live up to their full potential. Feminist activists’ responses were to call for personal and political transformation. The market’s reply was to push appliances that were supposed to be labor-saving.

In his Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice-President Richard Nixon attempted to prove Americans’ intellectual and technological superiority by claiming that the model kitchen in which they stood was designed “…to make life easier for women.” He soon dropped this line of reasoning in favor of arguments for planned obsolescence as America’s way of fostering innovation.

There are still gendered overtones to gadgets and appliances, particularly in terms of design, but we largely no longer hear arguments for technology as labor-saving. Perhaps running from scholarly findings that so-called labor-saving devices actually didn’t save any time (particularly for those working as domestics), technology marketing changed directions.

Still banking that we’ll want to save time so that we can spend it with other people, we’re encouraged paradoxically to stay in touch through our gadgets. With our Blackberries, Palms, Pocket PCs, Sidekicks, and WAP-enabled phones we can check email, download news, catch up with our soaps, and view documents so that we can “stay connected.” “Connected to what?”, Adorno asks from the Great Beyond. Clearly, we’re connected primarily to work, then family and friends second. It’s connection through disconnection.

Though I may sound anti-technology, I’m actually calling for and hope to foster through this column being conscious of the choices we make when we engage with, or rely upon, technology. I doubt if we’ll ever collectively feel like we have the kind of free time we had as children particularly in Western cultures when summer vacations seemed endless without work obligations, places to be, things to do, seeing a man about a horse.

Even if we dropped out of society and all the things that fill up our PDAs disappeared, would we ever feel like we have enough time? Whether its time to finish a work project, write an article, spend time with our kids, or find our soulmate, we’ll still search for and try out technologies that might enable us, someday, to enjoy time that’s no longer “free”, but that’s at least ours.

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