How time-saving technology has completely backfired

Everyone wants more time—but what do we want to use it for?
Everyone wants more time—but what do we want to use it for?
Image: Reuters / Stephane Mahe
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In the digital age, time is a precious commodity. Many technological innovations, from email to instant messengers to productivity apps, promise to make our lives faster, easier and more efficient.

Yet many of us feel more busy and harried than ever. We vacillate between regarding these technologies as the reason we feel so pressed for time and turning to them as a solution.

This is because technology reflects our culture and values as much as it shapes them. If we wish to use our time wisely, we need to step back and consider what kind of technology we really want—and the purposes we want it to serve.

Our strange relationship with technology and time makes me think of a scene in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic book The Little Prince. The little prince comes across a merchant selling pills intended to quench one’s thirst. A person only has to swallow a single pill once a week to make the need for drink disappear.

The little prince asks why the merchant would sell such a thing. “Because it saves a lot of time,” the merchant replies. “Experts have it all worked out. You save 53 minutes a week.”

“If I had 53 minutes to spend,” the little prince replies, “I would walk very slowly toward a spring of fresh water.”

As the little prince knows, saving time should not be venerated as an end to itself. Nor should it be taken as the divine doctrine of technological progress.

But this is precisely how time is regarded in Silicon Valley’s notoriously manic culture, where our digital gadgets get made. Their iconic designers frequently brag about working 12 or more hours a day, obsessing over tiny details like the exact dimensions of the corners on the iPhone. They have signs on their walls that command, “Stay up all [expletive] night … think about all the [expletive] possibilities.” When our tech gurus look for ways to save time, it’s almost certainly so they can use it to work.

But is this hyper-productive philosophy—and the digital devices it breeds—actually conducive to genuine inventiveness and imagination? It seems likely that it actually stifles innovation. When we’re knee-deep in project management apps, we’re left with little headspace to think of ways to challenge the status quo, question the assumptions that permeate our political discourse and create new possibilities for the future.

Moreover, the consequences of supposedly time-saving technologies are far from straightforward. The humble washing machine certainly reduces the drudgery and hard physical labor of laundry. But it also raises our standards of cleanliness, and thus our expectations. The result is that we now wash our clothes much more frequently than we used to.

In other words, performing a task faster does not mean we’ll do it less frequently. We may wind up doing it more.

That said, it’s true that technology can have a positive effect on our experience of time. What I value about smartphones is the flexibility of time they offer. I can coordinate with the busy members of my family to arrange a time when we can all meet at home for dinner. I can text a friend after I’ve mailed a package at the post office to see if she’s free for coffee. I can use Google Maps to show me the fastest and least-trafficked route home, leaving me more time to be with the people I care about.

What all this means is that we need to be more thoughtful about our time-saving technology. Most people won’t experience a significant improvement in their quality of life if they simply use the “extra” time to get more work done or scratch more chores off their to-do lists. What would make a real difference is more collective time with friends, family and their broader communities.

We also need to consider who truly benefits from time-saving technology. Laundry duty still frequently falls to women despite the advent of washing machines. In the same vein, I doubt that the Internet of Things—which allows us to operate domestic appliances remotely via our smartphones—will be a democratizing force in the kitchen. Instead, women will just be left in charge of preparing ever-more-precise pot roasts.

It’s time for us to reclaim the future from the cyber-gurus who present us with a technological vision of the world in which everything is faster, and yet everything stays the same. Instead, let’s follow the example of the little prince. The question we should ask is not “how do we save time,” but “what do we want to save time for?”