We all like “time-saving” devices, but what are we saving time to do?
L. M. Sacasas is the author of an illuminating newsletter, The Convivial Society, tracing the intersection of technology, society, and morality. He states a well-known truth that the best way to sell new products in America is to advertise them as “time-saving.” He follows that up with an unanticipated question: “What precisely are we saving time to do?”
Most people have no ready answer.
Thinking about it, I believe the answer has changed over time. In the olden days, folks might say they would take their “spare time” as a chance to relax and enjoy leisure time. That might mean things like sitting on the porch in your rocking chairs watching the sunset with your spouse — and perhaps reflecting on the bigger questions in life, values you didn’t get a chance to think about in the bustle of daily living.
Nowadays, It’s no longer enough for us to use our spare time to relax: now we must recreate (do recreation). We are told at every turn that we owe it to ourselves to make our leisure time more exciting and enjoyable — which, in America, requires spending money.
Casting my eye around any neighborhood confirms this observation: most yards are packed to overflowing with boats of all sizes, travel trailers, RVs, and commercial-sized lawn tractors, complete with all the accessories — with snowmobiles sitting forlornly off to the side from lack of snow.
All these toys cost big money to buy and maintain, requiring the owner to work more hours, not less, just to make the payments. Where’s the time-saving in that? And what happened about finding the time to ponder the big questions?
People weren’t as hooked on buying things to save time when I was growing up. I remember seeing my cousin fishing with his grandfather George every year during summer vacation. They were a fixture on Jenness Pond, bait-fishing for bass in their ancient wooden boat with a three-horse Johnson outboard motor. No movement, just sitting there hour after hour, one with the lake like Zen Masters.
George was intimate with the lake’s topography, knowing the location of every submerged ledge, every underwater spring. He knew every inhabitant of the lake, their desires and proclivities, and how they interacted with each other in any possible weather condition. Locally, he was known as the bass guru.
Now fast forward to the frenzy on Jenness Pond today: 100 horse-power, streamlined bass boats flitting around the lake like predatory wasps guarding their nest. Catching bass was the natural result of George’s profound knowledge of the lake and the foibles of the fish. To use the current lingo, George and my cousin were successful because of their deep “sense of place.” They were wedded to Jenness Pond, while the modern intruders are married to their 30-thousand-dollar bass boats.
Sacasas is rightfully concerned that this quest for efficiency can rob us of our soul, reducing our lives to “quantifiable outcomes and measurable outputs.” What we lose in this Faustian bargain is the essence of who we are: the particular ways we pursue our goals — “in the ways we are involved, invested, and engaged in the tasks that make up our days.”
As an alternative, Sacasas asks, what if we could view our tasks not through the lens of cold-eyed efficiency but “as a means of keeping faith-with our neighbors, with our friends, with our family, perhaps even with ourselves?” And I would add, keeping faith with our little blue planet, the only home we have.”
To my way of thinking, he has hit upon a root cause of the psychological and moral malaise our country suffers from today.
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