Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can You Gain Time by Giving Up Devices?

I'll start with a confession: this Christmas, I've had dreams of smart phones, iPads, and Kindles dancing around in my head. One reason these devices are so alluring is that they promise more time. I'd really like to be able to access every book ever written, immediately, with a small touchscreen machine in my hand. Forget all the time walking through libraries, all the hassles of checking out books, all the delays while waiting for them to be shipped. It's a dream!

In my waking hours, I've read a couple of old-fashioned printed books--a technology I still adore--that share stories of giving up modern technology.

Can one forsake time-saving technologies and gain back time? That's the lesson from these two authors.

Colin Beavan, in No Impact Man, spent a year scaling back his ecological footprint. After giving up cars and taxis, he tells a story about walking around New York City in the rain with his young daughter Isabella:
And on this rainy day, here is what happens when I treat my body as something more than a means to transport my head, when I finally learn to treat the landscape as something more than the space that stands between where I am now and where I want to be later: 
I take Isabella down from my shoulders and let her jump in a puddle, soaking her shoes and pants. For fun, I jump in the puddle, too. Isabella laughs. She stretches out her arms with her palms facing up to catch the rain. She opens her mouth, sticks her tongue out and leans her head back. I try it, too.
When did the child in me disappear? 
People are running past. They look desperate, miserable, trying to get out of the rain. What has happened to us (pp. 87-88)?
Slowing down, connecting to the weather, to natural rhythms, can open up time. As Beavan puts it,
The mechanized boxes that transport our brains from here to there and the portable electronics that keep us constantly connected have robbed us of the ho-hum. Those periods that interrupted the everyday rush, like a red light constantly bringing the quiet of stopped traffic, have been excised. Now peak moment follows peak moment, and they have all been accordioned together (p. 89).
My translation: we can't experience the fullness of time or kairos time as a constant succession of peak moments. Peak moments can't be engineered to happen constantly. Kairos time (deeply meaningful time) normally emerges in cracks, gaps, or interruptions of chronos (24/7 clock) time, and we need to savor those cracks, gaps, or interruptions.

This might sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but Eric Brende made some hardheaded calculations during his year without technology (as reported in Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology).

Having committed to 18 months of farming Amish-style, with minimal technology, he was a bit overwhelmed by the high point of the summer threshing season, which was spent picking up sheaves of wheat with a pitchfork and pitching them into a threshing machine under a hot sun. In fact, he got heatstroke in his first day of threshing, much to his neighbors' delight (and they worked communally on all such large tasks).

But he did some time-motion calculations and estimated that he and his neighbors spent "nine hours and twenty minutes actual labor in the [threshing] peak season," which "lasted approximately two to four weeks" (p. 162). Combine this with the frequent breaks during the work, the pleasure of working with others, a pleasant off-season filled with down time, and the fact that all the farmers in the community were debt-free, this seemed like a pretty good bargain to him.

Later in the book, he waxes poetically about this discovery of more time (gained with the elimination of allegedly time-saving devices):
Even in the busy season we had more time. This was another way to say that we had fallen in time, taking our time. The relaxed rhythms of manual labor, like some unseen conductor's beat, coaxed into synchrony the oddest array of harmonizing parts. We had drummed our wooden spoons against the kitchen kettles, mingled with the brass and winds of the barn animals and soared cerebrally to the accompaniment of string beans. And after much arduous polishing and practicing, we had finally struck a chord with the whole collection.
The secret lay, much as in anything, in simultaneity. Things that technology had separated were reunited. The results were more than efficient; they were symphonic. In an orchestral performance an oboe warbles beside a viola and the two produce a lush blend. On the porch of a working household, you visit with your mother-in-law while pushing the centers of tomatoes into a bowl, and the breeze brushes against your face, and the leaves rustle--and likewise music emanates. And when your part is done, there is plenty of time to breathe during the rests (p. 217).
Although I could never express it so eloquently, I have experienced this kind of grace--beauty, time abundance, connection to others--when I've turned off my devices and taken a sabbath nap, when I've worked with others, when I've taken time to enjoy the weather, and when I've just been open to God's presence.

Even if we could download a "kairos time app," we'll never be able to schedule the Fullness of Time with our devices. And that's good news.


  1. This is a great reflection. Sure, a sabbath from technology can be extremely beneficial, but is disconnecting for good a real answer? Basically, Is it possible to stay competitive while remaining low tech? As a high school teacher, I admit to having struggled with two competing values. I have vowed to prepare my students for the ever evolving global workforce. However, I don't believe that the fast paced disconnected lifestyle promoted by our changing world is something I want my students to aspire to.

  2. It's all about selective and conscious engagement with technologies. Eric Brendle argues that some technologies *do* help us to achieve our goals. But so often technology forces us to change and gets in the way of our pursuing worthwhile goals.