The future was supposed to be darker. Technology, in the service of some vast, all-encompassing power, was going to enslave us. Human beings would be reduced to ciphers, forced to live anonymous, interchangeable lives.
Most people would say that we have avoided that nightmare. For the most part, technology has been a liberator, rather than a tool of oppression. Rather than constricting our options, technology has expanded choices.
Problem is, we have so many options — 500 channels of cable TV, 5 million Web sites. Choosing between them or just making the best use of the time we have is now the real challenge. The tyrant is not technology; rather it is the temptation to try to master all the different choices out there.
This is the lifestyle question. The three key digits of life at the turn of the century are 2, 4 and 7: 24/7. We want to be able to do what we want, when we want, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We’re getting there.
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but even Tokyo, where most ATM machines close at 7 and the trains stop at midnight, is beginning to dance around the clock.
The go-go lifestyle has usually been the preserve of the party crowd. But these days, the really bleary-eyed animals are finance folks, typically thought of as a more button-downed bunch. Their party never stops, as money zips from one market to another, searching for opportunities to squeeze out a little more profit.
An acquaintance of mine, a forex analyst for one of the big banks, is up every morning at 3 and in the office by 5, ready to fill in colleagues on the other side of the planet. With major trading centers conveniently spaced across the globe in London, New York and Tokyo, somebody somewhere is always working, demanding more information. Back offices for many major companies are now located on the other side of the planet, so that when the head office’s workday is wrapping up, the grunts doing the sums are just getting going.
It has its advantages. It gives us flexibility, so that if you’re crunching the numbers or doing the translations (another back-office task), you can do it on your own time in your own place. I’ve heard of a French translator for law firms in Europe who lives in a quasi-cave in India with a laptop and satellite hookup. You don’t have to go that far. Get an ISDN line and enjoy the Kamakura hills, and spare yourself that wretched daily commute.
For these people, time is almost irrelevant. The structure of their workday is forged by other, distant rhythms. For many of them, there is no such thing as being “off.” Do you know of a banker-type that doesn’t have a cell phone? They, along with a growing number of professionals, are constantly on call. After all, when you demand service, somebody out there has to deliver. Welcome to the 24-7 world.
Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker, has decided that this brave new digital world requires, not only a new watch, but a new way of telling time. To mark this new era, and make a franc in the process, it has produced the Internet watch, which apart from being another collectible for Swatch connoisseurs — good thing the universe is infinite and expanding — also uses Internet time.
Forget seconds, hours and minutes. Internet time divides the day into 1,000 beats of about a minute and a half in duration. Swatch’s home, Biel, Switzerland, is this new world’s Greenwich, so when it is @000, it’s midnight there.
The new watch displays both conventional and Internet time. (The curious can go to Swatch’s Web-based converter www.swatch.com/internettime/ converter.php3 for a sample.)
Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it also hits uncomfortably close to home. Time zones are anachronistic in a world that is growing more tightly linked each day. Apart from the chauvinism involved in picking a meridian and the difficulties in converting, why wouldn’t Internet time make sense?
After all, we’re spending more and more time online. A recent Louis Harris and Associates poll showed the average U.S. cybernaut spends six hours a week online, and that doesn’t include the time spent downloading e-mail. Sixty-two percent logged 15 hours a week on their PC; among users aged 30-39, it was 23 hours a week, of which nine hours was spent online.
In Japan, 80 percent of Internet users are online at least once a day; Fujitsu Research Institute estimates that two-thirds of this group logs on several times daily. Another survey found that Japanese users spend about two hours a week on the Net, logging a mere 12 minutes each session. That will grow as more content becomes available, connection costs drop and people get more comfortable with the medium.
Theoretically, this will make our lives easier. Work is supposed to be more efficient; we should be more productive, with more time to devote to leisure. Then, once we leave the office (the telecommuter needs to give the chair a spin, I suppose) technology allows us to eke still more pleasure out of free time.
Take your pick: Make travel plans quicker and easier; download your entertainment at home; enjoy the benefits of that 24/7 life with a late-night dinner, all-night bowling or hitting a club.
Or you can worry. Worry that you’re not squeezing the absolute most you can into your life. That seems to me to be the most stressful part of the 24/7 life: Thinking that you should be doing something with all those options. Doing nothing is virtually impossible — or at least, doing nothing without feeling guilty about it.
Alternatively, you can worry that the beeper or phone is going to go off and someone, somewhere else, needs you to make their 24/7 life complete.
All the while the clock ticks on. And down. There is another timer that matters: You can find it at www.deathclock.com. It informs you of the time you have left before, statistically, yours has run out. Don’t waste a minute.