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Old Father Time Becomes a Terror

Richard Tomkins

1 Once upon a time, technology, we thought, would make our lives easier. Machines were expected to do our work for us, leaving us with ever-increasing quantities of time to waste away on idleness and pleasure.




2 But instead of liberating us, technology has enslaved us. Innovations are occurring at a bewildering rate: as many now arrive in a year as once arrived in a millennium. And as each invention arrives, it eats further into our time.


3 The motorcar, for example, promised unimaginable levels of personal mobility. But now, traffic in cities moves more slowly than it did in the days of the horse-drawn carriage, and we waste our lives stuck in traffic jams.


4 The aircraft promised new horizons, too. The trouble is, it delivered them. Its very existence created a demand for time-consuming journeys that we would never previously have dreamed of undertaking -- the transatlantic shopping expedition, for example, or the trip to a convention on the other side of the world.


5 In most cases, technology has not saved time, but enabled us to do more things. In the home, washing machines promised to free women from having to toil over the laundry. In reality, they encouraged us to change our clothes daily instead of weekly, creating seven times as much washing and ironing. Similarly, the weekly bath has been replaced by the daily shower, multiplying the hours spent on personal grooming. 在大多数情况下,技术发展并未节省时间,而是使我们得以做更多的事。在家里,洗衣机可望使妇女摆脱繁重的洗衣劳作。但事实上,它们促使我们每天,而不是每星期换一次衣服,这就使熨洗衣物的工作量变成原来的7倍。同样地,每周一次的沐浴为每日一次的淋浴所代替,使得用于个人穿着打扮的时间大大增加。

6 Meanwhile, technology has not only allowed work to spread into our leisure time -- the laptop-on-the-beach syndrome -- but added the new burden of dealing with faxes, e-mails and voicemails. It has also provided us with the opportunity to spend hours fixing software glitches on our personal computers or filling our heads with useless information from the Internet.



7 Technology apart, the Internet points the way to a second reason why we feel so time-pressed: the information explosion.


8 A couple of centuries ago, nearly all the world's accumulated learning could be contained in the heads of a few philosophers. Today, those heads could not hope to accommodate more than a tiny fraction of the information generated in a single day.


9 News, facts and opinions pour in from every corner of the world. The television set offers 150 channels. There are millions of Internet sites. Magazines, books and CD-ROMs proliferate.


10 "In the whole world of scholarship, there were only a handful of scientific journals in the 18th century, and the publication of a book was an event," says Edward Wilson, honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University's museum of comparative zoology. "Now, I find myself subscribing to 60 or 70 journals or magazines just to keep me up with what amounts to a minute proportion of the expanding frontiers of scholarship."


11 There is another reason for our increased time stress levels, too: rising prosperity. As ever-larger quantities of goods and services are produced, they have to be consumed. Driven on by advertising, we do our best to oblige: we buy more, travel more and play more, but we struggle to keep up. So we suffer from what Wilson calls discontent with super abundance -- the confusion of endless choice.


12 Of course, not everyone is overstressed. "It's a convenient shorthand to say we're all time-starved, but we have to remember that it only applies to, say, half the population," says Michael Willmott, director of the Future Foundation, a London research company.


13 "Y ou've got people retiring early, you've got the unemployed, you've got other people maybe only peripherally involved in the economy who don't have this situation at all. If you're unemployed, your problem is that you've got too much time, not too little."


14 Paul Edwards, chairman of the London-based Henley Centre forecasting group, points out that the feeling of pressures can also be exaggerated, or self-imposed. "Everyone talks about it so

much that about 50 percent of unemployed or retired people will tell you they never have enough time to get things done," he says. "It's almost got to the point where there's stress envy. If you're not stressed, you're not succeeding. Everyone wants to have a little bit of this stress to show they're an important person."


15 There is another aspect to all of this too. Hour-by-hour logs kept by thousands of volunteers over the decades have shown that, in the U.K. , working hours have risen only slightly in the last 10 years, and in the U.S., they have actually fallen -- even for those in professional and executive jobs, where the perceptions of stress are highest.


16 In the U.S., John Robinson, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Penn State University found that, since the mid-1960s, the average American had gained five hours a week in free time -- that is, time left after working, sleeping, commuting, caring for children and doing the chores.


17 The gains, however, were unevenly distributed. The people who benefited the most were singles and empty-nesters. Those who gained the least -- less than an hour -- were working couples with pre-school children, perhaps reflecting the trend for parents to spend more time nurturing their offspring.


18 There is, of course, a gender issue here, too. Advances in household appliances may have encouraged women to take paying jobs: but as we have already noted, technology did not end household chores. As a result, we see appalling inequalities in the distribution of free time between the sexes. According to the Henley Centre, working fathers in the U. K. average 48 hours of free time a week. Working mothers get 14.


19 Inequalities apart, the perception of the time famine is widespread, and has provoked a variety of reactions. One is an attempt to gain the largest possible amount of satisfaction from the smallest possible investment of time. People today want fast food, sound bytes and instant gratification. And they become upset when time is wasted.



20 "People talk about quality time. They want perfect moments," says the Henley Centre's Edwards. "If you take your kids to a movie and McDonald's and it's not perfect, you've wasted an afternoon, and it's a sense that you've lost something precious. If you lose some money you can earn some more, but if you waste time you can never get it back."


21 People are also trying to buy time. Anything that helps streamline our lives is a growth market. One example is what Americans call concierge services -- domestic help, childcare, gardening and decorating. And on-line retailers are seeing big increases in sales -- though not, as yet, profits.


22 A third reaction to time famine has been the growth of the work-life debate. Y ou hear more about people taking early retirement or giving up high pressure jobs in favour of occupations with shorter working hours. And bodies such as Britain's National Work-Life Forum have sprung up, urging employers to end the long-hours culture among managers and to adopt family-friendly working policies.


23 The trouble with all these reactions is that liberating time -- whether by making better use of it, buying it from others or reducing the amount spent at work -- is futile if the hours gained are immediately diverted to other purposes.


24 As Godbey points out, the stress we feel arises not from a shortage of time, but from the surfeit of things we try to cram into it. "It's the kid in the candy store," he says. "There's just so many good things to do. The array of choices is stunning. Our free time is increasing, but not as fast as our sense of the necessary."


25 A more successful remedy may lie in understanding the problem rather than evading it.


26 Before the industrial revolution, people lived in small communities with limited communications. Within the confines of their village, they could reasonably expect to know everything that was to be known, see everything that was to be seen, and do everything that was to be done.