Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Time saved, more time to waste

It’s naïve, but I can’t help feeling impressed by the way technology is constantly being harnessed to save time.

Although it’s been around a while now, I’m still delighted with contactless payments in shops. You don’t even have to insert a card into a machine any more, or even enter a PIN, far less sign a piece of paper. Brilliant.

“I can’t get over how quick this system is,” I told the woman behind the till as I paid for some shopping I decided to do before seeing a GP this morning. I was a bit early for the GP, you see, so it made sense to get the purchases out of the way beforehand.

“Very quick,” she replied, “though unfortunately they haven’t speeded up the system that prints your receipt, and we have to wait until I can give it to you.”

It was a good point. We were able to have a brief chat about the weather, as one does, at least in England, while we were waiting for her system to make up its mind to spit out my receipt.

That left me a little thoughtful. The time gained by using the contactless service was as nothing compared to the time it took for the transaction to complete. The whole experience all seemed rather pointless, set in that context.

The thought was underlined still further when I headed off to my GP’s surgery, only to discover that he was running late (and how unusual is that when it comes to GPs?) So any time I might have saved in the shop would only have served to get me more quickly into the GP’s waiting room, killing time until he could see me. Saving time so I could get started on wasting time a little more quickly.

The whole experience put me in mind of a story I once heard about an American businessman in North Africa chatting with a Bedouin trader who regularly crosses the Sahara.

“I can get from one side of the desert to the other with a camel train in under a month,” he announces with pride.

“A month?” exclaims the businessman, “I can cross it in a couple of hours by plane.”

“Yes,” says the Bedouin, “but just what do you do with the time you save?”

Sure this isn’t the right way to go?

So technology continues to impress me. But I have to admit that the efficiency of one machine can be undermined by the inefficiency of another. And ultimately the whole thing depends on the efficiency of the human users of these exciting systems, and I’m not sure it’s progressed particularly over the centuries.

As the Bedouin said, it isn’t the time our machinery saves us that matters, it’s the use we find ourselves able to make of it…

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