We have bid another year adieu, greeted a new, with introspection and anticipation commingling in the usual fashion. Tradition holds that a review of what has taken place during the last 365 days urges one to learn what one can, if anything, from mistakes made then, and to then set goals for the next calendar year. These resolutions can range from fatuous to sincere and serious. Given time and determination, some are actually realized.
Given time. That's the rub these days, the one commodity that is more precious than any rare metal or glittering gem. The one component of our existence that we have little or no control over — not only as individuals, but perhaps also as a species. Some of us look at how personkind is treating the planet, and say that unless we radically change our habits of consumption we're doomed. Yet Pollyannas amongst us cheerfully continue to live beyond their means, caring little about ecological calamities and the portents of ominous significance all around them. And the vast lumpen majority simply scurries from place to place, attempting to keep pace with the demands of modern life.
Most of us, if asked, would admit to having a time preference — of preferring results, satisfaction in the here and now, rather than placing faith in the sweet hereafter. The credo is "I exist now. It is possible that I will not exist later." This avoids risk — and also is a good explanation for why, as an example, our fiscal habits change as we age. When we are young we expect to live long, any investment setbacks will no doubt be countered with a bounce back.
Money is one thing. Decision theory attempts to formalize rational choice during times of risk and uncertainty, focusing on the old cost-benefit formula. That is, weighing quantifiable costs and benefits both on their individual merit as well as balancing them against each other. Thus cashing in on opportunities as created by rational expectation.
Yet sooner or later we need to factor in the inexorable march of time. While average life expectancy has increased thanks to better hygiene, medicine and nutrition, all of the plans that a rational individual makes give little consideration to the various unpredictable factors that can curtail our brief sojourn. As we age and see others taken "far too soon" the exhortations of using our time wisely become a regular part of the daily grind. Seizing the day, making hay while the sun shines, striking while the iron is hot — all are expressions that emphasize the importance of taking time by the forelock. Unlike cash there is only so much of it available; hence, use time wisely.
Alas, there are more and more demands on our time. Paradoxically, the desire for leisure time and the goodies associated with an easy life sees many working harder and longer than ever before. Multitasking has now entered our vocabulary: the ability to do many things at once, or juggle myriad responsibilities and tasks over the course of a day is curiously lauded — and almost expected. (The novelist D.W. Buffa derisively suggests that multitasking was once known as schizophrenia. Buffa notes that "the inability to keep your mind focused on anything for longer than a few seconds has become a virtue to be bragged about.")
Working parents have long seen the boundary between job responsibilities and family lives become blurred, go-getters think little of being connected to the workplace at all times. That connectivity was once called being available 24/7, every hour of every day of the week. The concept of being always ready to do what the employer expects has become pervasive. Seems, however, that 24 hours are just not enough to perform all of the necessary tasks demanded by the modern world. Technology alone is not the answer. Rather than being our ally, technology has in effect become the enemy in the search for a quality life.
Last fall Yahoo released a study that indicates that a modern family lives not a 24-hour but a "high-tech" 43-hour long day. This result was reached after adding up all the hours that we spend sleeping, working, shopping, commuting, emailing, text messaging, using the Internet for research and school work etc — as well as time with family. Granted, Yahoo is not the most uninterested company to commission such a study, and their claim that the modern family actually needs technology to maintain traditional values must be taken with more than a grain of salt.
One of the claims that the study makes is that cell phones are essential to keeping a family in touch. How on earth did "traditional families" survive before the advent of mobile telephone technology? Now, however, no sane modern parent would be without a cell, a teenager sans the latest cool connectivity tool. The evolution of our stance reflects this: the pose of hand to ear is becoming ubiquitous on the urban blightscape. Darwin would, perhaps, be amused. Has the species really made progress?
Vancouver-based Priority Management, a time-management training business, thinks not. They have introduced a 12-step program for multitaskers to counter what they see as an addiction to technology. Busy does not mean effective. Taking a cell phone call during dinner — or allowing being interrupted anywhere private or semi-private, for anything, for that matter — is to their mind dysfunctional. For many youths cell phones are becoming the new umbilical cord rather than allowing them to develop a connected independence..
In fact, cell phones are but the most visible example of what, borrowing from Robert Hughes, might be called the Culture of E-mmediate Gratification. As the Blue Man Group's brilliant show, which is, alas, closing this week in Toronto underscores, connectivity and technology have paradoxically created a state of isolation among modern people. Take as an example the Internet café — where people crouch over laptops, "communicating" with people that they cannot see. 43 hours a day? Too many indeed, yet too few for quality time. Perhaps a return to Will Ferrell's idea of 24/7 is the answer. As the actor spoofed G. W. Bush on Saturday Night Live, that means 24 hours a week, 7 months of the year.
Wishing all an efficient, but relaxed 2007,