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The New Timescape

“Remember that time is money”

– Benjamin Franklin

During the First Wave (agricultural societies) and still recently in some civilizations, people were not paid hourly, but usually received a fraction of their production. This resulted in a different relationship to time from ours. As Marina Gorbis details in her paper “Back to the Future: From time-based to task-based work”, “Not long ago in parts of Madagascar people measured time in units of rice cooking – how long it took to cook a pot of rice (about half an hour) or how long it took to fry a locust (a moment). Native people in Southern Nigeria used the saying: A man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted (less than 15 minutes). (…) The clock was sometimes referred to as the devil’s mill. In such places, there were no precise meal times, the notion of an exact appointment time was unknown and people agreed to meet at the next market. This kind of un-timed, imprecise way of living may seem alien and quaint to us today but, in fact, throughout most of our history, before we invented clocks and highly efficient industrialized production, we did not view time as a measurable commodity to be sold for money, traded or organized. Instead, our conception of time was tightly linked to tasks that needed to be done.”

It is only with the Second Wave (industrial age), that the pricing of labor became based on time: factory workers were paid by the hour and we started measuring labor productivity (amount produced over time). Later on, norms were established, with U.S. employees working 9 to 5 including a 30- to 60-minute break for lunch. Time started being standardized, with masses of people eating, commuting, working, shopping, and entertaining themselves following a similar schedule. The same time discipline applied to schools. As Alvin and Heidi Toffler state it in their book Revolution Wealth, “In yesterday’s work world, time was packaged in standard lengths. Labor contracts and federal laws made overtime expensive for employers and discouraged deviance from standard time packages.” For years, we somehow considered that this time-based work and life system was mostly unchallenged, until we recently started experiencing a shift…

So what about this Third Wave? “By contrast, today’s emergent economy, for which those schoolchildren are being misprepared, runs on radically different temporal principles. In it, we are fragmenting yesterday’standard time packages as we shift from collective time to customized time.” (Alvin and Heidi Toffler).  Yes, work in fundamentally changing and as Daniel H. Pink describes in his book Free Agent Nation, U.S. labor force is increasingly composed of “free agents” (33 million) setting their own hours and many of which work from home, coworking spaces, libraries, or coffee houses – self-employed professionals, freelancers, independent contractors, consultants, digital nomads, etc. As work schedules are being fragmented, so are social life, family routine and leisure time. Think how cable TV and national television reunion (Good Morning America, Saturday Night Live, Late shows, etc.) are being replaced by on-demand streaming services. Schedules are so individualized, fragmented and unpredictable that family and friends cannot assume they can gather face-to-face anymore. They have to arrange meeting ahead of time and often share calendars to show availability. Last minute cancellation has become commonplace. In addition, individuals can choose when to buy and when to be delivered. Thanks to e-commerce, they are not limited by store opening hours anymore. The change is also happening in the physical commerce which is more and more 24/7, even if in some countries (France), we witness resistance from workers, unions, and lobbyists against store opening on Sundays. According to Alvin and Heidi Toffler, “Continuous-flow services permit consumption schedules to be designed by each individual, thus further promoting the shift to irregular time. In both production and consumption, then, times and tempos are becoming more complex and de-massified, This, in turn, has consequences for every business, in every sector, and for economies at every level of development.”

For futurists, looking back is a vital component of preparing for looking forward. What this thought-exercise tells us in the case of time conception, is that what we tend to think of as a given (time-based work) being shattered by latest technology and trends such as uberisation (task-based work) is not exactly the case. It seems much more that we are slowly leaving a short-life (200-300 years) time-based work system to adopt a new time/work paradigm which reminds us in some ways in the ancient task-based system! Of course, even if we come back to task-based work, it is likely to differ greatly from the task-based living of our ancestors. But even so, we need to slowly detach ourselves from this time-based work vision to fully embrace the new fragmented timescape and its correlated activity-based system. And to end on a positive note, there is a hope that instead of increasing commodification of our time, intensified automation will enable us to “decommodify our notions of time and re-capture that which is unproductive, unplanned, unpredictable, and yet uniquely human?” (Marina Gorbis). On this re-capture of our human self, I truly believe in a No-tech-land: Remains of our human nature.


Published by Sylvia

Futurist - Futures Thinking & Strategic Foresight

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