Wall Street Journal adaptation from Present Shock
Adapted from the forthcoming book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now” by Douglas Rushkoff, published by Penguin.
Technology has always given us more control over time—especially now at the dawn of the digital age. But no matter how precisely we can count our milliseconds, neither our bodies nor our businesses are proving as programmable as our computers.
Digital technology tends to make one minute look the same as any other. Still, try as we might to ignore them, the people who work for us, invest in us, and buy from us are guided by rhythms we ignore at our peril.
While our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, we humans and our culture evolved over millennia and are slower to adapt. The body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, syncing to everything from the sun and moon to levels of violence and available water. We can’t simply declare noon to be midnight and expect our body to conform to the new scheme as if it were a Google Calendar resetting to a new time zone. Neither can we force our businesses to conform to an always-on ethos when the people we work with and for are still obeying a more deeply embedded temporal scheme.
Instead of our offloading time-intensive tasks to our machines, we attempt to match the speed of our network connections. Thanks to the Internet, we travel more on business not less, we work at all hours on demand, and spend our free time answering email or tending to our social networks. Staring into screens, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers. We are more likely to accept the digital clock’s illusion that all time is equivalent and interchangeable. But it isn’t.
Sure, the always-on philosophy works well for many businesses. During overnight hours, cable channels like Home Shopping Network and QVC are still buzzing. Where department stores may wait until the end of the quarter to find out how a product line is doing, executives at QVC get sales reports as they happen. Likewise, Zara’s real-time supply chain turns scans at the register almost directly into a ping for another unit at the factory.
But too many of us also aspire to be “on” at any time and to treat the various portions of the day as mere artifacts of a more primitive culture—the way we look at seemingly archaic blue laws requiring stores to close at least one day a week. We want all access, all the time, to everything—and to match this intensity and availability ourselves: citizens of the virtual city that never sleeps. Ultraefficiency advocate Timothy Ferriss’s book “The 4-Hour Body” teaches readers how to “hack sleep” by taking 20-minute naps every four hours instead of a single overnight stretch. It is an approach to the human-body-as-lithium-ion-battery more appropriate for machines than for people.
This is the digital trap: Instead of teaching our technologies to conform to our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our machines’ timeless nature.
We fetishize concepts such as the cyborg or human technological enhancement, looking to bring our personal evolution up to the pace of Apple system updates. We answer our email as it arrives, we trust Echemistry.com to calculate our best mates, our algorithmically generated Klout scores stand in for social status, and our Nike Fuel bands dictate our fitness goals for the day.
Internet workers are expected to accept the cyborg ethos as a given. Google and Facebook welcome their engineers to work around the clock, providing food, showers, and even laundry service for their programmers. The bathroom stall doors have daily programming tips to read while sitting on the toilet. These campuses are lovely, to be sure, but they may as well be space stations or casinos, always on and utterly cut off from the passage of time.
By letting technology lead the pace, we don’t increase genuine choice or human competence at all. Bloggers disconnect themselves from the beats they may be covering by working through the screen and keyboard, covering the online versions of their subjects.
Designers base their fashions on the computer readouts of incoming calls from housewives at 1 a.m. Lovers expect immediate and appropriate responses to their text messages, however tired or overworked the partner might be.
Programmers expect themselves to generate the same quality code at 2 a.m. as they did at 2 p.m. earlier—and are willing to medicate themselves in order to do so. Human investors compete with algorithms trading at ultrafast speeds and responding to our orders before they are even executed. Our digital competitors are quite literally trading in our future.
In each of these cases, the bloggers, designers, lovers, programmers, and investors all sacrifice their connection to real-world rhythms in order to match those dictated by their technologies. Reporters miss out on the actual news cycle and its ebb and flow of activity. Programmers work less efficiently by refusing to recognize naturally peak productive hours. Designers miss out on quite powerfully determinative cultural trends by focusing on the mediated responses of insomniac television viewers. Businesses ignore the natural ebb and flow of market cycles, and poison their own consumers by attempting to stimulate them all season, every season.
Imagine, instead of trying to ride roughshod over these cycles, actually using or even exploiting recent discoveries about our common neurochemical responses to the four-week lunar cycle. Each week, a different neurotransmitter seems to dominate. One week, acetylcholine emphasizes new social contacts. In the next, serotonin enhances productivity. In the third, increased dopamine emphasizes risk-taking and recreation. In the last, norepinephrine heightens our analytic skills. Instead of forcing or drugging ourselves to fight these patterns, we can engage them to enhance our results.
It is an easy mistake to make. The opportunity offered to us by digital technology is to reclaim our time and program our devices to conform to our personal and collective rhythms. Computers don’t really care about time. They are machines operating on internal clocks that aren’t chronological, but events-based: This happens, then that happens. They don’t care how much—or how little—time passes between each step of the sequence. This infinitely flexible relationship to time offers unique opportunities to calculate and act upon the individual and collective cycles making up our enterprises and their markets.
Admittedly, this isn’t easy for companies with shareholders who live for the hockey-stick-shaped earnings graph. But that is not the way either people or organizations function—especially not when we are using social networking technologies that connect us and in many ways amplify the rhythmic qualities of our living cultures. For while digital technology can serve to disconnect us from the cycles that have traditionally orchestrated our activities, it can also serve to bring us back into sync.
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