How Technological Progress Turns Time Against Us

The more time technology saves us, the less we feel we have. Three researchers explore this modern 'double paradox.'

Running late
Running late
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA — In his memorable 1989 short story "Walter," Italian author Michele Serra imagined the "time, multiplied by millions of people" we spend "confused in front of supermarket shelves," where there are 64 different brands of toothpaste, "vainly trying to decide which one to buy."

The short story's hero concludes, "I don't have anymore time," and then promptly goes mad.

Through fiction, the author established a link between the perception of time and the perception of choices — existential or otherwise — that we increasingly face. It's a link that, a quarter of a century later and deep into the digital era, is the topic of academic study by a trio of researchers: Férédéric Kaplan, the digital humanities chair at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Jordan Etkin, an American marketing researcher, and Kenneth Goldsmith, a New York poet and essay writer.

"It's a double paradox," Kaplan says. "We're more and more efficient. We have lots of tools that make us gain time. We potentially have more time than we've ever had. At the same time, we have the strong feeling that we don't have enough time, as the German sociologist and philosopher Hartmut Rosa pointed out in his book Social Acceleration."

We have this perception because we've lost or abandoned the idea — which seemed obvious a few decades ago — that we would work our whole lives in the same company, maintain the same religion all our lives, and fit into a simple trajectory from a point A to point B," Kaplan says. "Today, there's this widespread tendency to ask yourself: Am I doing what's best for me?" he explains. "Wouldn't I be better off doing something else? How do I optimize my possibilities? I could be whatever I want to be, so I tell myself I must be able to be everything."

This has two particular effects, he says. "On one hand, it's liberating, because a linear trajectory is not necessarily the most fulfilling life pattern. On the other hand, it leads to great stress. If I can be something different tomorrow, I need to be able to grasp everything today — and that's impossible. I have the impression of having all the tools necessary to grasp this possibility that's right in front of me, but it slips away from me, leading to a feeling of lack of time."

Photo: Dhilung Kirat

Our impression of lack of time comes from the fact that our lives no longer fit into great narratives, he says, as we entered in the 1980s a new era termed "postmodernity."

In the 19th and 20th centuries, great stories were at the heart of everything, Kaplan says. "They said tomorrow will be different. I'm poor, but tomorrow I'll be rich. We're oppressed, but tomorrow we'll be free. All this will happen over time. Time was a narrative promise," he says. This vision of history fell into crisis exactly when "24-hour news channels and the endless narration of television series made their appearance," he notes.

The media coverage of the first Gulf War, Twin Peaks, the Internet: There were many markers to illustrate that the connection between time and narration was dramatically changing. It's impossible for our minds to grasp time without pegging it to a form of narrative.

Time put to the choice test

The digital age opens to us an infinite range of possible paths, but it also confronts us with the impossibility of following all of them. This double movement produces the impression that we don't have time for anything. But the link between the perception of time and the range of choices is, in reality, much stranger and deeper. This was recently demonstrated in a study conducted by three marketing researchers: Jordan Etkin (Duke University), Ioannis Evangelidis (Erasmus University) and Jennifer Aaker (Stanford University). Their starting point: "Little is known about what affects people's subjective sense of time."

Photo: Nick

Set to appear in the Journal of Marketing Research, the study reveals its conclusion in its title, "Pressed for Time: Goal Conflict Shapes How Time is Seen, Spent, and Valued." More clearly, all the situations in which we have to choose between contradictory objectives (eat healthy food or indulge, for instance) are perceived as a time problem — even though, in principle, they aren't. Each dilemma (buy a safe but polluting car or an environmentally friendly but more dangerous one?) triggers the feeling that time is eluding us. It's experimental confirmation, through social science, of the aforementioned toothpaste problem.

Jordan Etkin and her team note that when the conflict between two contradictory objectives is perceived as intense, breathing slowly and deeply seems to be a simple way to restore a sense of time. Breath in, breath out — a basic unit of time lived.

Who loses, wins

In December 2014, poet Kenneth Goldsmith made headlines by announcing that his next class as a University of Pennsylvania professor would be called, "Wasting Time on the Internet," approaching the topic from a counterintuitive perspective. He says it isn't meant to be ironic, that it's perfectly serious.

"I was sick of reading all these articles and books saying that the Internet makes us more stupid," Goldsmith says by phone. The professor asks his students to go online three hours per week with no set goal, then to produce literary texts with the material they've found. The resulting disparate harvest of fragments, snippets and scoria collected during an online stroll is meant to symbolically reflect our experience, our way of being in the world, our way of creating in the digital age.

"We can go back to Baudelaire, to Walter Benjamin, to the surrealists," Goldsmith says. "In fact, in quite a strange way, it's as if the whole history of modernism in the 20th century anticipated the digital condition."

The praise of time-wasting as a driving force for creativity does indeed have a pedigree. In a New Yorker article, Goldsmith pointed out the surrealists' enthusiasm for psychic states located at the "twilight between wakefulness and sleep," as French writer André Breton, who supported "sleepwalking as an optimal widespread societal condition," called it. This ideal, Goldsmith writes, "has been fully realized in today's technologies."

He explains that we can read all the books, see all the films, listen to all the music we could ever dream of via our computers. "We've become archivists, collectors, gatherers of cultural artefacts," Goldsmith says. "And we are so excited by this orgy that we can't sit down long enough to watch an entire film, because we want to see another one. This leads to a disjointed situation, where we're always jumping from one thing to another, immersing ourselves and reemerging. And that's exciting. It's amazing."

And in that way, he says, wasting time may be the only way to avoid the obsessive impression of not having enough.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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