brni (brni) wrote,

the death of downtime

One thing that the internet is good for is seeing how things like major debilitating snow storms affect the people you know. I'm looking out at my street, which has yet to be plowed, and seeing reports on facebook of people being ordered in to work at 8:30 am. I conversed with a friend yesterday who was required to work yesterday, in the midst of the blizzard itself, though her company magnanimously permitted her to work from home. She was required to be online and at her computer from 8am to 5pm, basically eating all the time that could conceivably be used to try to make a Thursday digout manageable. The people I'm seeing having to deal with this stuff are not "necessary personnel" in the "emergency situation" sense of the term. They are not first responders, medical staff, security personnel, or snow plow drivers. They aren't electric company repair people. They don't have jobs which, if they are left fallow for a day, result in people suffering or dying.

When I was young, I remember giant storms that left entire communities snowed in for days on end. People settled in, took care of their driveways and cars and homes. They took care of their kids, got them out sledding or whatever. There's little time for that now, with people being ordered to work in the midst of things. Productivity must be maintained. Stores must be open. Access to goods and services must be available 24 x 7.

Two innovations that I've witnessed in my lifetime are, I think, the primary causes of the 24 x 7 culture. The Internet is not one of them, though it has certainly contributed, both directly and as a mode of competition. In my opinion, it was the convenience store and the ATM that changed our culture.

Used to be we needed to plan. You got money at the bank, which meant scheduling a time when you could get to the bank during bank hours. You needed to figure out how much money you needed, and stick to budget, so you didn't run out of cash over the weekend.

Charge cards were not ubiquitous, and you couldn't really count on every store accepting them. Grocery stores did not.

Business hours were relatively standard. Store hours were designed to accommodate that. Workplaces generally understood that people needed to be able to get to the bank during bank hours, giving people some leeway on payday to accomplish this.

With the exception of certain necessary jobs - police, hospital staff, bartenders - work happened during business hours, and shopping in the hours after that. By evening, the world shut down, and people could relax.

Convenience stores and ATMs extended the day, enabled access and stretched out "productive" hours. In response, grocery stores extended hours, staying open until 10pm, then midnight, then 24x7, in some cases. Malls extended hours. Sundays changed from a day of rest to a day of shopping.

And as a result we are, as a people, less patient, and more insistent on instant gratification than we had been. We require those we deal with to give us what we want, when we want it, on the terms which we require. And we become increasingly jealous of the time we expend providing what others want, when they want it, and on the terms which they require. It is reflected in our shopping patterns, in our behavior while waiting in queue, and in our driving.

Time has become our most precious commodity, and the more we insist on maximizing the efficiency with which our time is spent, the less we have of it.
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