I’ve always been preoccupied by the concept and value of time. The way it ebbs and flows. The way it elusively passes both quickly and slowly. And the way it collapses and unfolds depending on the narrative you construct out of your memories.
When I was younger I was concerned that my time should be spent in such a way that I wouldn’t regret it. How self-righteous I was in that quest but thinking about it now, how could I have possibly known then what I would come to regret now? Nowadays I’m concerned with where to spend my time. On what? What do I value in this lifetime? Perhaps I am in the same predicament as before, just more paralysed by an existential crisis. But that’s for a different post or may I suggest you take a look at my comics.
Either way I’ve noticed that, subconsciously, I have always valued time over money. Now I even choose to think of my time as a currency. My focus and attention is a currency. It’s an extremely valuable one, I’ve realised. Much more valuable than money and Capitalism is constantly trying to take it from me. Capitalism would have me believe that money is a worthy and equal exchange for my time and attention but I’m not convinced.
First came industrialisation and the mindless assumption that bigger was better, at any cost. I remember prematurely reading ‘The Third Wave’ by Alvin Toffler and only half understanding what it was talking about. Still it opened my mind to zooming out and observing large scale transformations in economics, politics and science that deeply affect the very essence of human activity. But it was really Michael Ende’s children’s story ‘Momo’ that made me look closely at our collective loss of time. [Spoiler alert] It’s a story about a little girl who saves the world by giving everyone back their time. In it, the faceless people of modernity have stolen time by promising saved time in the future if everyone works hard and fast now. But the faceless people are lying and they know it. You get the picture. The parallels are uncanny.
In recent years this thievery is taking on more manipulative and ominous forms via technology. Our attention is literally something computer scientists and software engineers are studying how to capture and tech giants are explicitly competing for. As it always does, money has found its way, unregulated, into the place we used to uphold as the ultimate sphere of human freedom. Whatever little time industrialisation left for us is now being pawned. But we don’t even get the money. We get entertainment, information and products – the benefits of which I seriously doubt. We’re only now beginning to investigate the corruption of this system and the severe damage it’s doing to our species.
Two characters have deeply influenced my thinking on this subject for years; Jaron Lanier and Tristan Harris. Both computer scientists turned what I’m going to call ‘Ethical Technologists’. Harris began his ‘activism’ setting up an organisation called Time Well Spent in which he proposed small ways in which Google Mail, just to take an example, could have designed its functionality and interface to encourage us to be more mindful and focused. Now he’s set up an organisation called the Center for Humane Technology which does this work on a much larger scale. It’s calling on the technology community to recognise the adverse affects of the way we’re designing technology and take action. I just got an email newsletter from them yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:
In last week’s presentation, we explained how seemingly separate problems – tech addiction, teen depression, shortening attention spans, political polarization, the breakdown of truth, outrage-ification of culture, and the rise of vanity/micro-celebrity culture – are actually not separate issues. They are all symptoms of one underlying problem: the race between tech giants to capture human attention, which becomes a race to overwhelm human weaknesses. Put together, that race creates “human downgrading.”
Jaron Lanier has been writing about this kind of human downgrading for years. He completely blew me away with his book ‘You are not a gadget’ but on the topic of time, money, technology and Capitalism his second book ‘Who Owns The Future’ reveals the frightening reality of our information systems. We are selling our most precious items (time and data) for nothing to a handful of people at the top of the tech food chain. It’s outright theft and it’s dangerous.
Perhaps the part that I hate most about all of this is that in spite of my lofty principles and socialist ethics, I have to admit that my heart is still with capitalism and money. I have steadfastly avoided permanent and full-time employment my entire professional life. On a good day my success feels obvious. I have travelled, I have had real time to spend freely with people I love, indulge in long correspondences with countless friends and family, cultivate these relationships, make handmade gifts, pursue my creativity and curiosity with genuine enthusiasm and interest, create work I am proud of and purely for the joy of it while earning enough money to sustain my lifestyle through contract graphic design work and varied freelance projects for individuals and small organisations that I am happy to support. But the truth is that my therapist had to positively reframe my life that way, that’s not how my life usually appears to me. Most of the time I am depressed. I feel worthless. I’m starting to realise it’s because I don’t have a lot of money, I’m not ‘important’ or powerful and I haven’t really fulfilled the capitalist dream. I feel constantly conflicted by my idea of success. It’s hard to live outside the system. There are forces trying to undermine what you believe and you live in constant doubt of yourself. So what to do? I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.
Two things that have happened recently have given me moments to reflect on my situation. Talking about the principles of my professional life to a stranger I’d just met I said ‘I want to make a living, not make money’. By that I didn’t mean I have outright rejected money. I understand that it is a necessity for survival, I just don’t want it to become much bigger than that. I’m pursuing a full life which consists of many things that money can’t buy. I didn’t think much of the phrase at the time, I’ve said it a lot, but she was really taken by it and now I am too. it reminds me that I believe in this life and I should value that. The second thing is that I’ve recently started seeing someone. He’s completely different from anyone I’ve ever met before and I’m completely in love with him. The more I think about it, the more I realise that I treasure him because he gives me his time, freely and truly, and because he represents a freedom of mind that I yearn for. He’s been unemployed for a little while, but he seems to enjoy it. In fact it’s the reason why he’s so available to talk to me, think about things I have said and genuinely engage with our relationship. He calmly looks for dishwashing and sous-chef jobs. He’s not anxious about his future in spite of his situation. He’s smart, curious and engaging in intellectual discussions but not seeking academic qualifications. He pursues his interests independently with the few resources he has. He’s not addicted to his phone. Or the internet. Or anything really. Maybe just his guitar. But he plays it because he loves to, not because he imagines himself to become a professional musician. It’s a revelation to meet someone so content with just being. I only seem to experience that contentment fleetingly. Capitalism tells us to idolise things like importance, beauty and money but that’s a promise of happiness it doesn’t keep. We all know it and yet we allow it to feed us these lies regularly. I find his oblivious rejection of these ideals revolutionary. He’s so present. With everything. It really feels like a gift when someone gives you their time and attention like that. It makes you feel so valuable.
And that’s just it. Time has value in itself, money doesn’t. We’ve just assigned it value for other things. But what are those other things that we value? Capitalism has completely mis-calibrated our compasses. Some of us are permanently spinning around confused and some of us have north pointed in the wrong direction. We have to find north another way and have conviction in our internal compasses. Maybe we should take inspiration from ancient knowledge, spiritual wisdom, truths found in nature and in human instinct. I think our systems of knowledge and of knowing are all wrong. More on that later.