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."
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.