Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Living in a time-compressed society.

Time compression has become a fact of modern life. The traffic light that takes 30 seconds to change or the computer that takes a minute to boot up or the checkout line where it takes five minutes to buy a week’s groceries all have come to seem interminable delays. Time compression has made us a society of impatient people, anxious always to be “doing” or to receive the benefits of doing NOW. This change in normal required time has profound implications for society in a host of matters. One of the most significant is the implication for our cultural time sense. A cultural time sense reflects the way a society positions itself vis-à-vis the future.

Societies tend to vary in their cultural time sense. For example, a society like Japan’s - one that engages in planning today to position its industry to be competitive in the next century - is clearly a society with a fairly long time horizon. On the other hand, a society like that of the United States - one that’s creating a tremendous national debt and has actually shifted from being a major creditor to being a major debtor nation within a decade - is a society that reflects a much shorter cultural time sense.

Regardless of the fundamental way a society views the future, the time compression reflected by significant decreases in normal required time causes all societies to fight the battle of maintaining a “future focus.” When in so many areas the payoff of actions is immediate - be it mathematical calculation, the speed of long-distance travel, or the rapidity of transcontinental data transmission - it becomes increasingly hard to focus on or engage in activities in which the payoff is years away.

When we are impatient with the little things, it is hard to be patient with the big things. We see this in many areas of contemporary society. Financial markets have been driven by merger activity and derivative trading as a means of creating value. This is in lieu of the old-fashioned way of investing in productive capacity and building a business. Consumers have plunged into debt to enjoy a fling today, often with limited concern for the longer-term consequences of their actions. And Americans have tolerated the creation of massive federal indebtedness and the international erosion of their financial power in the world economy.

In The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism Richard Sennet argues that in our flexible, reengineered economy, we are unmoored from our past, from our neighbours and from ourselves. How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves, living in a society which is impatient and which focuses on the immediate moment? You may not agree with his arguments, but he’ll lead you to new places.

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