Normal Required Time
This article first appeared in the May-June 1969 issue of the Futurist under the title, Tomorrow? Who Cares? Thirty-eight years later, it is just as relevant if not moreso, than it was at the time. Who among us hasn't been infected by the time compression virus? Thanks to the author for permission to make it available on our site.
A recent editorial in Computers and People discusses
the changes in what is referred to as normal required
time. The editorial notes, "In the 1920s it was normal
to require six days to travel from New York to London;
in 1988 the normal required time is six hours."
Time compression has become a fact of modern life.
The traffic light that takes 30 seconds to change or
the computer that takes a minute to boot up or the
checkout line where it takes five minutes to buy a
week's groceries all have come to seem interminable
delays. Time compression has made us a society of
impatient people, anxious always to be "doing" or to
receive the benefits of doing NOW.
This change in normal required time has profound
implications for society in a host of matters. One of
the most significant is the implication for our cultural
time sense. A cultural time sense reflects the way a
society positions itself vis-à-vis the future.
Societies tend to vary in their cultural time sense.
For example, a society like Japan's - one that engages
in planning today to position its industry to be competitive
in the next century - is clearly a society with
a fairly long time horizon. On the other hand, a society
like that of the United States - one that is creating a
tremendous national debt and has actually shifted
from being a major creditor to being a major debtor
nation within a decade --- is a society that reflects a
much shorter cultural time sense.
Regardless of the fundamental way a society views
the future, the time compression reflected by significant
decreases in normal required time causes all
societies to fight the battle of maintaining a "future
focus." When in so many areas the payoff of actions
is immediate - be it mathematical calculation, the
speed of long-distance travel, or the rapidity of transcontinental
data transmission --- it becomes increasingly
hard to focus on or engage in activities in which
the payoff is years away.
When we are impatient with the little things, it is
hard to be patient with the big things. We see this in
many areas of contemporary society. Financial markets
in the 1980s have been driven by merger activity
and corporate raiding as a means of capturing value.
This is in lieu of the old-fashioned way of investing
in productive capacity and building a business. Consumers
have plunged into debt to enjoy a fling today,
often with limited concern for the longer-term consequences
of their actions. And the American people
have tolerated the creation of massive federal indebtedness
and the international erosion of their financial
power in the world economy.
It appears that the reduction in normal required
time is reinforcing our shortening cultural time sense.
We face the challenge of accepting the reduction in
normal required time as an essential benefit of technological
progress while not letting our growing sense
of impatience spill over to the abandonment of our
commitments to the future.
Put another way, micro-impatience doesn't hurt us
and is perhaps inevitable as we come to expect more
and more from our technological cornucopia. However,
macro-impatience can threaten our way of life
if it means individuals, businesses, or governments
abandon future-oriented social, political, and economic
programs and projects.
Fighting a shortening of the cultural time sense is
not easy, but it is not impossible, either. It requires a
change in the way we think and in the way we structure
rewards and incentives. Some questions can be
asked to determine whether we are on the right path.
For individuals, is growing consumer debt becoming
a way of life at the expense of future financial
well-being? Is the decline in the savings rate a rational
response to a more-uncertain future or an irrational
turning of our collective backs on the future? And is
our tolerance of bad economic policy an act of cynicism
or political and economic indifference?
For businesses, are bonuses geared to quarterly results
or to long-term performance? Are employees
perceived as an asset to be nurtured or a cost to be
contained? Are research and development expenditures
treated as a drag on the current bottom line or
as an investment in tomorrow? And are pension
liabilities funded to meet future obligations or under-funded
to enhance the perception of current performance?
For governments, is action being taken to bring the
fundamental income-expenditure relationship back
into line? And are adequate investments being made
in the infrastructure at all levels of government, or is
the capital stock of nations being allowed to decay,
with its implied problems for tomorrow?
It is hard to swim against the tide, whether that
tide is oceanic or cultural. Our cultural tide is running
away from an active consciousness of the future, and
it will take a special kind of leadership and awareness
to stand against that tide. It will require us to act in
ways that will yield payoffs tomorrow rather than
today. And it will require consistency in pursuing the
long vision at a time when society increasingly wants
the quick return.
Our economic policies must be restructured to shift
incentives away from immediate gratification toward
the willingness to wait for returns. To do this will
require nothing less than a change in the cultural
mindset. And this change will require action today,
not, as has too often been the case, "next year."
Thomas Oberhofer is a professor in the Department of Economics
at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida.
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