Monday, December 10, 2007

4. TIME - The economics

(c) Harendra Alwis

As a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce in a busy world, the value of time has been on the rise, obeying the laws of supply and demand in classical economics. So it may seem obvious to an unsuspecting mind that the notion “time is money” was born out of the haste of our modern, industrialised and computerised world, but it is not. The economic value of time has been acknowledged even in ancient Greece where Antiphon, a Greek speech writer, is credited with the first use of the phrase as a maxim, when he wrote in 430 BC that “The most costly outlay is time.” The notion of time's monetary value has appeared thereafter in many cultures and has been expressed in many different ways.

Despite the value of time being acknowledged as way back in history as ancient Greece, it was not until the dawn of super fast computer networks in the last few decades that time has actually become a publicly traded commodity. To be considered a commodity, time had to be mass produced in sufficiently large quantities, chopped up into measurable chunks, price-tagged and transported to open markets. It was only recently that the technology that enabled the production of time has combined with market forces that demanded it, to make the trade possible and economically viable.

In fact, the industrial scale production of time is perhaps the most lucrative business opportunity that opened up in the 20th century. Predicting the future of markets is at best a guessing game, but considering the growing demand and healthy prices on offer, it will probably continue to show a healthy growth well into the foreseeable future.

Machines that do things faster than us ‘save’ time. So faster cars, faster toasters, microwave ovens that cook food much faster than conventional ovens and barcode readers that process our grocery list faster at supermarket counters have all ousted their slower and therefore inferior predecessors. Among this flood of faster technology, computers are perhaps the closest that comes to being an embodiment of time as a commodity in the material world. Faster computers that presumably carry out more tasks per unit of time are more expensive because they perceivably ‘save’ time. Given the rate at which their prices change however, it is reasonable to believe that the price of time in the open market can be very volatile.

Most computers can only do one thing at a time. Yet they can give us the impression that they can do many things at the same time by switching between each task at speeds that we will never notice. Yet, by letting you type out an email while downloading a movie, while listening to music, while talking to a distant friend on VoIP telephony, computers have become mini-home-based time factories that let us accomplish multiple tasks in one single chunk of time. Late 20th century consumerism is feasting on tempting treats for those of us who want to save time; such as toasters that consume thirty seconds less to toast a slice of bread than its previous model and ‘Door Close’ buttons on elevators that on average save 0.8 seconds of its passenger’s time.

Machines that substitute for us ‘create’ time by freeing us even momentarily from time’s unrelenting grip; so that we may do ‘something else’. Computers today, squeeze in roughly ninety times more work into one second, than they did ten years ago, essentially creating more time than they did then. Washing machines, coffee makers, bread makers, mixers and blenders have unhinged the metal grip of time that held pre-twentieth century housewives captive to a multitude of household chores. They not only allowed the expansion of the economy by allowing the fraction of the productive workforce in society to double, but quantitatively increased average family incomes resulting in an explosion of the middle class. The political as well as socio-cultural revolutions that tore the class-based social structure apart was- in the final analysis - enabled by the spare-time that automation had created in the lives of common men and women.

Thanks to technology that can transport time into the remotest of places and in small chunks, trading time has become ubiquitous and user-friendly interfaces have greatly simplified these transactions. Certain advertising models on the Internet offer payment or other rewards of monetary value for anyone to trade in seconds and minutes of their time to watch advertisements and fill out surveys. Mobile phone calls are billed by the second. Millions of ordinary people in front of computers around the world buy blue-chip stocks, and sell them within minutes for a hefty profit.

It is the paradox of the age we live in however, that as we try to save time by inventing machines that create and add seconds, minutes and hours to our lives, the pace of our lives inevitably accelerates to keep up with them. The vast quantities of time we save and create are ironically spent trying to create and save more time than we can ever spend. It is perhaps the elegance of life’s design that no matter how much time we save or create, they cannot be added to our lifetime. Despite the profits we earn by trading time we are becoming increasingly poorer for not being able to spend any of it on the truly enriching experiences of life. Birds sing outside our windows and flowers bloom and wither in our gardens without being offered a moment from our vast reserves of time, for their music and vivid colours to uplift or inspire us.

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