There’s Time for Experience

morning train

If there was only one feature that could describe modern technology, it would be in its masterful feat in effectively saving time. It’s amazing to think that there was a day, just over a couple of decades ago, where emails didn’t exist, where you needed to remember to get a camera whenever you wanted to take a picture, when you needed to locate a payphone to make a phone call, when you needed to carry pens and paper with you if you needed to make notes, an actual alarm clock, an actual phone book, and a countless number of other things.

The amount of convenience technology has brought to our lives is incredible. And yet, we are still looking for ways to save time, to save energy, and to find more convenience. We can now shop online for just about anything, and we can watch anything anytime we want without commercials, we can get a glimpse into other people’s lives who are thousands of miles away from us, and we can do all of that without moving an inch, without wasting a single extra second.

And yet, despite the truly amazing progress we have made in terms of efficiency, it seems that we might be missing the bigger picture. Rory Sutherland in an insightful Ted Talk discussed the importance of perspective in our lives. He was discussing how the stress of waiting for a train was solved by not making the train faster, but by putting a countdown clock.

 Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, knuckle-biting, going ‘When’s this train going to arrive?Rory Sutherland

His idea was that what irritated people wasn’t the fact that the transportation system needed improving, that trains needed to be faster, or that we can’t wait anymore for the new groundbreaking lightning fast transportation system, it was that we just needed to tweak little things to greatly enhance our everyday experiences.

I think that’s quite an significant point. Many of us are fixated on reducing the time it takes to get to our destination, often spending a considerable amount of time and effort into finding the least time consuming route possible, and to a large extent, we’re not really making ourselves any happier. If anything, we might just be making ourselves more miserable.

I was discussing with a friend of mine a few ideas of how the future might look like, how future inventions may very well make the time we spend waiting to get somewhere, waiting to buy something completely negligible. I expressed how  I was annoyed at the task of grocery shopping as it took an exceptional amount of time, and effort that could be used for something more meaningful. I started to enthusiastically discuss all the innovations that are making live grocery shopping a thing of the past. I imagined it would be truly incredible if we had so much more time to spend on things we loved doing, instead of just waiting for our stop, or walking around aimlessly in a supermarket buying things.

I was, however, promptly interrupted from my enthusiastic musings when he said, “Yeah, but what about the experience? You keep talking about how we’ll have so much more time to spend, but what are we going to spend it doing? Don’t you have moments throughout the day where you don’t really want to work or anything, or that you’re just too exhausted to really think? And wouldn’t it be refreshing to go out to supermarket and just walk around?”

He explained his point further by explaining how much of an experience mundane things can be if we look at them differently. We tend to take them for granted as time-wasting activities but there’s a kind of unique experience that they offer where we couldn’t really get elsewhere. Even travelling in a bus, or train, or waiting for them to come doesn’t have to be seen as a time wasting activity.

When I thought about it and how it applies to me, I realized a couple of things. I didn’t take too much pleasure into picking out items, that to me was still boring and time-consuming, but the second thing I realized was a little less obvious to me.

I realized that almost all of the time I spend alone with my thoughts, without interruption, happen in those mundane, time-consuming, pointless moments. When I’m doing something so boring, and requires minimum mental effort, I start to have thoughts. I think about many different things, and have the rare opportunity to do so peacefully. It’s difficult to sit in front of a laptop, and decide to put it aside and think, to be using your phone and think, to be working on something, socializing, or studying and think. Those rare moments of thought only have any room to happen when I’m just about to sleep, taking a shower, or when I’m commuting by foot, or by car, bus, train, or plane.

This is all really interesting to me because I’m often frustrated by the task of waiting. A long queue in front of me can often put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the day, and what this made me realize is that it would be great if instead of focusing my attention on counting the number of people ahead of me, and trying to figure out how much time each individual takes, and then trying to figure out how much time it would take in total before it’s my turn, it would be a far more rewarding and useful experience if I used that time to just entertain myself with my own thoughts.

Other than trying to change your perspective on the mundane experiences that you need to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to appreciate them as activities that can be enjoyable and interesting, you can purposefully use that time for thinking about absolutely anything, and it seems that such an opportunity will happen even less in the future, so it might be a good idea to try to make the most of it when you can.

The Technology Trade-off

technology tradeoffSomething that seems to be disappearing from our culture is the ability to reflect. I don’t mean that in a philosophical sense necessarily. Given that we are in the age of technology and social media apps, and are constantly being exposed to new ways of wasting time seamlessly,  it occurs to me that something very valuable and yet easily overlooked will be traded off. We can be sure that a more interconnected world could be vastly rewarding in many ways, including keeping us mentally active and socially involved.

There are obvious benefits from this new way of living, and there are also many consequences that are quite obvious. One is where we choose to give more attention to our phones than to people during social settings. The other is the obvious health drawback due to physical inactivity. This thought is not about those things, but of something a little more subtle.  A period  of calamity and not being preoccupied with something in the palm of our hands is constantly being shortened with time, and with it the ability to introspect, analyze, and use our creativity.

Porn websites render the practice of imagination less important, social media websites render the art of proper, genuine conversation less necessary. These may be direct consequences, but another perhaps more important concern is worth thinking about. The time being spent on the internet is vastly shortening the amount of time to be unoccupied, free, and mentally inactive and it is precisely those moments that enable us to think, to question, and to create. Will there come a time when those moments are not only drastically reduced, but removed completely? Where even taking a shower, or driving our car, or jogging on a track involves a technological method of mental preoccupation?

It does not seem unlikely, given the increase in internet use, and smart-phone dependency.  Imagining such a place where most people simply do not have time to reflect, while only a few do directly conveys a very dull picture of our future. Since the number of people who come up with creative ideas that might improve the quality of life decreases as a result of the declining amount of people who have the time to come up with those ideas, the quality of our future inventions will probably decline.

It can be argued that creative people would by their very nature continue being creative, regardless of the distractions available to them. However, that would be overseeing the fact that many ideas do spring by accident, by people who did not intend on inventing them. There is also the likely possibility that self-criticism and reflection would be activities that were a thing of the past. What kind of society would we be if we lost the ability to examine our own flaws, and work on bettering ourselves? If people agree with me, and acknowledge that there might be a problem. Then perhaps the next step is to think about how something like this can be avoided. It might help if we put away our laptops, tablets, and smart phones for a second though.