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Technology vs. Peril Part II: It’s About Time

November 04, 2014

Quick: what do AED’s, tourniquets and air bags all have in common? Answer: They give us more time.

What we really want – what we really need – in an emergency is a warm blanket and more time. Time to fetch a better tool or the right tool. Time to get help from someone in light blue scrubs. Time to figure out what to do next. In a way, technology gives us limited control of time in specific situations: sometimes by making the most of a small amount of time (AEDs), sometimes by slowing things down (tourniquets and air bags), and sometimes by speeding things up (modern digital X-ray machines). So it seems we’ve invented rudimentary time machines. (Good; we can check that off our list. Next up: world hunger.)

Tools for medical emergencies aren’t the only time machines we’ve invented, though. A lot of technological innovation is focused on power and speed to save time: faster computers with higher bandwidth Internet connections and blenders and chainsaws and electric can openers. Actually, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an electric can opener. Y’know, the ones with the magnet for holding the lid and a built-in knife sharpener? What happened to those? Why are we manually opening cans, for crying out loud? Have we regressed to savages with Instagram accounts?

Having more time makes us want more time… So maybe it’s not about time. Maybe it’s actually about desire.

Like everything, it seems, there is a sweet spot. Our time machines have an inverted U-shaped performance/safety curve. A little more speed and power is great. A little more than that is even better. A little more than that will likely hurt you when you don’t expect it – just ask anybody who’s used a table saw more than twice. Table saws, by the way, have been around for a long time but only recently has an astounding safety feature been developed: a mechanism that senses when a human body part comes into contact with the saw blade and stops the blade before the user suffers anything more than a small nick. It’s literally a race between performance and safety! (No metaphors here to gum up the cognitive works, no siree. No time for that kind of nonsense.)

And just as sure as an old-school table saw will get us out of playing a piano recital, so will going through our daily tasks as quickly as possible. The increased tempo of emails and meetings and reports and clickable links can lull us into a rhythmic form of computer-assisted injury. We have all accidentally lost an important piece of work because we were in a hurry and didn’t notice the dialog box actually said, “Yes, I’d like to delete this thing I just worked on for an hour and need for a presentation in 15 minutes. Yeah, this one. Torch it, HAL.” This sort of emergency makes us not only want to slam on the brakes, but put the wheels of time in reverse.

There’s an interesting thing about using all of these time machines. We talk about wanting to “make” time, “save” time, “stop” time and travel back in time, and we design wonderful machines that do all those things to some degree. But still we want more control over time. We keep trying to find that little edge we can use to pry our lives free from the inexorable march of time. But having more time makes us want more time…

So maybe it’s not about time. Maybe it’s actually about desire: I don’t want to wait; I want to be done now. I don’t want to do this task; I want to do the next task. I don’t want things to be this way; I want things to be different. We use time as a scapegoat and we build machines to make that scapegoat smaller and lighter and less likely to screw up our day. But the smaller that scapegoat gets, the more the faint outline of our desires emerge from behind it.

We are – all of us – playing for a little more time. Technology gives us clocks to measure it and tools to control it. If we’re both lucky and wise, we set aside a little for reflection and then exercise our ability to choose how best to use it.