Digital Time / Fast Time


I had an interesting conversation with my mother yesterday. We were talking about how much time it can take to answer one’s emails, as well as how difficult it can be to find time to sit down and concentrate on writing or creating or thinking or just being. She commented, “it seems like we have a new relationship with time.”

I asked her what she meant by that. She explained, “I often hear people saying, ‘things seem to be going faster and faster’.” We then remembered a conversation we had a few years back with my grandmother. My mother had asked her, “in the 1950s, when you were a young woman, do you remember things being this busy, time moving so fast?” My grandmother answered, “no! you all seem to be much busier today than people where then.”

I have been thinking of this conversation in relation to an article I read a few days ago about a former businessman who decided to live for one year without money. Someone he met through donated a caravan for him to live in. He set up the caravan on the property of an organic farm in exchange for working there three days per week. Throughout the year he foraged for food, built his own stove, bartered, rode his bicycle, and lived simply. Interestingly, the article described what happened to time as he led his life without money:

“Everything in Mark’s life takes a lot longer as part of his new moneyless routine. Washing his clothes takes a couple of hours of scrubbing with hand-made soap. Even a cup of tea takes half an hour to make! But Mark says, “It’s all worth it in the end because the feeling of liberation and connection with nature it has afforded me more than compensates for the minor inconveniences.”

“Taking time out from the hectic money-driven world that we live in has taught Mark a lot. Although his experience of living without money has occasionally been difficult, it has also been the happiest time of his life.”

Mark Boyle, The Moneless Man: A Year Of Freeconomic Living.

Reading this it strikes me that there is perhaps a relationship between time and one’s impact on the environment. The more simply one lives: the more time it takes: the less impact one has on the planet. Or maybe: the more complexly one lives: the faster things move: the more impact one has on the planet? The equation is simplistic, but perhaps worth considering…

For example, Mark might take 30 minutes to pick fresh nettles growing nearby his caravan, gather wood, build a fire, boil spring water, and make a cup of tea. A time-consuming, yet meditative activity. Meanwhile the typical American, waking up at 7am for a commute to work, might take 2 minutes to make a cup of instant coffee by boiling water drawn from the vast infrastructure of a city water system, plopping in a few spoonfuls of powered coffee picked and processed far away, and rushing out the door with cup-in-hand. In the 28 extra minutes the coffee drinker has saved he perhaps checks his email, writes two quick messages, eats a peanut butter sandwich, skims the newspaper headlines on three websites, and packs his laptop up to take to work. I can guess that the convenient cup of instant coffee has a much bigger environmental footprint than the cup of nettle tea – let alone the impact of all the other activities that the coffee drinker manages to squeeze into his day!

All this makes me wonder … what is the nature of digital time? That is, the speed of business transactions, communication, trading, purchasing, life, the stock market, travel, bank loans, etc. that is enabled by computers, the internet, mobile devices. Is digital time always faster? What is the relationship between digital time and the environment? Or, the relationship between digital time and other kinds of time – family time, day/night time, season time, sleep-time, creative time? What happens if/when we choose not to participate in digital time?

I mentioned that I was interested in investigating the experience of “digital time” to a colleague at lunch.  She immediately said, “oh, you mean like how when you spend an evening without your computer time seems to stretch out forever, and when you have your computer it just goes by so much more quickly?” Yes …

Digital Living Time


Minna’s post Fast Food Publishing about the pressure that the new media ecology is putting on the publishing industry as a whole to speed up production has gotten me thinking about the nature of time in a digital world more generally. Have the internet and other digital devices increased the speed at which we are expected to do things? (Probably, yes.) Such as: responding to a personal or business ‘letter’, or to a party invitation or telephone call, and publishing or releasing books / films / music. Or more expansively, today how is time organized in daily life and family life? What aspects are governed by “digital time” vs. by other parameters like the rhythm of night and day and of the seasons?

Bill McKibben’s book The Age of Missing Information (1992) is relevant to this question. McKibben writes evocatively about the kind of information that we now have access to in the “information age” – which at the moment he was writing was epitomized by TV, and now is only intensified by the internet – vs. the information that we do not have access to in this way of living.  That is, McKibben argues, although we know much more about world history, computers, cars and so on than our ancestors there are some things we know much less about. Almost any person 100 to 200 years ago, for example, would have known the ins and outs of the land where they lived perfectly: when growing seasons would begin and end, where to graze sheep or cattle, how long the nights vs. days would be.  Now much of the Western world spends a far greater percentage of their time in front of screens (TV, internet, mobile device) than outdoors.

While McKibben deals more with information than with time in his book he does discuss to time-related shifts – ones that would be worth further exploration.