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  • Speeding Toward Meaninglessness

    Why Time-saving Devices Don't Save Time

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Social commentators have for decades been telling us that time-saving devices don't really save time. Not that many of us need to hear it. Who does not know from direct experience that the technological mastery of time somehow translates into the increasing PRESSURE of time?

    No one has put the case more vividly than Helena Norberg-Hodge, in a book called "Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh." A linguist, she has studied the high Himalayan culture of Ladakh for two decades, watching its transition from an isolated, "primitive" -- and remarkably joyful -- society to a society under westernized development.

    One of Norberg-Hodge's Ladakhi friends told her: "I can't understand it. My sister in the capital, she now has all these things that do the work faster. She just buys her clothes in a shop, she has a jeep, a telephone, a gas cooker. All of these things save so much time, and yet when I go to visit her, she doesn't have the time to talk to me."

    But does this mean you and I can save time by giving up, say, our automatic washing machines? The answer is "no," so long as everything else remains the same.

    However, everything else would not remain the same. If we were to begin washing our clothes by hand, other conditions of our lives would also tend to change, including our choice of clothes to buy. And if many people made similar choices, the entire texture and pattern of modern life would slowly be transformed.

    This is easier to see by looking at what actually occurred with the arrival of the washing machine. There was, first off, the need to earn the money to pay for the machine. And for the electricity or gas. And for the automatic water delivery and disposal systems. And now also for the various environmental damages resulting from the machine's manufacture, the production of energy to run it, and the discharge of its detergents.

    But that is not all. The washing machine changes the sort of clothes we buy, preparing the way for new fabrics requiring special care. It modifies standards of whiteness, of sterility, of neatness and social presentability. It encourages additional washings at the slightest whim. It requires a significant chunk of floor space in the home, accounting for a slice of the mortgage.

    There is no end to such outward-rippling effects. For example, the washing machine's manufacture depends upon everything from large-scale mining to a sophisticated infrastructure for long-distance transport -- which contribute, among other things, to the time-consuming geographical sprawl of our lives.

    You see, then, that this appliance presents itself as a labor-saving device only when we look at it "atomistically" and do not consider the larger pattern. Unfortunately, our society's failure to reckon with pattern remains deeply ingrained despite our various flirtations with holism, organicism, and the rest.

    But there is a still deeper problem underlying our passion for "time- saving" or "labor-saving" devices. These phrases imply on their faces that time and labor are enemies to be vanquished. Activities we wish to "save" ourselves from are activities we have alrea