What to worry about 2

I’m concerned about time—the way we’re warping it and it’s warping us. Human beings, like other animals, seem to have remarkably accurate internal clocks. Take away our wristwatches and our cell phones, and we can still make pretty good estimates about time intervals. But that faculty can also be easily distorted. Our perception of time is subjective; it changes with our circumstances and our experiences. When things are happening quickly all around us, delays that would otherwise seem brief begin to feel interminable. Seconds stretch out. Minutes go on forever. “Our sense of time,” observed William James in his 1890 masterwork The Principles of Psychology, “seems subject to the law of contrast.”

In a 2009 article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the French psychologists Sylvie Droit-Volet and Sandrine Gil described what they call the paradox of time: “although humans are able to accurately estimate time as if they possess a specific mechanism that allows them to measure time,” they wrote, “their representations of time are easily distorted by the context.” They describe how our sense of time changes with our emotional state. When we’re agitated or anxious, for example, time seems to crawl; we lose patience. Our social milieu, too, influences the way we experience time. Studies suggest, write Droit-Volet and Gill, “that individuals match their time with that of others.” The “activity rhythm” of those around us alters our own perception of the passing of time.

Given what we know about the variability of our time sense, it seems clear that information and communication technologies would have a particularly strong effect on personal time perception. After all, they often determine the pace of the events we experience, the speed with which we’re presented with new information and stimuli, and even the rhythm of our social interactions. That’s been true for a long time, but the influence must be particularly strong now that we carry powerful and extraordinarily fast computers around with us all day long. Our gadgets train us to expect near-instantaneous responses to our actions, and we quickly get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays.

I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a second or two longer—waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a web page—seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds.

Research on web users makes it clear that this is a general phenomenon. Back in 2006, a famous study of online retailing found that a large percentage of online shoppers would abandon a retailing site if its pages took four seconds or longer to load. In the years since then, the so-called Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule. Studies by companies like Google and Microsoft now find that it takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. “Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” a top Microsoft engineer said in 2012. To put that into perspective, it takes about the same amount of time for you to blink an eye.

A recent study of online video viewing provides more evidence of how advances in media and networking technology reduce the patience of human beings. The researchers, Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh Sitaraman, studied a huge database that documented 23 million video views by nearly seven million people. They found that people start abandoning a video in droves after a two-second delay. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has had to wait for a video to begin after clicking the Start button. More interesting is the study’s finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates. Every time a network gets quicker, we become antsier.

As we experience faster flows of information online, we become, in other words, less patient people. But it’s not just a network effect. The phenomenon is amplified by the constant buzz of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and social networking in general. Society’s “activity rhythm” has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.

All of this has obvious importance to anyone involved in online media or in running data centers. But it also has implications for how all of us think, socialize, and in general live. If we assume that networks will continue to get faster—a pretty safe bet—then we can also conclude that we’ll become more and more impatient, more and more intolerant of even microseconds of delay between action and response. As a result, we’ll be less likely to experience anything that requires us to wait, that doesn’t provide us with instant gratification.

That has cultural as well as personal consequences. The greatest of human works—in art, science, politics—tend to take time and patience both to create and to appreciate. The deepest experiences can’t be measured in fractions of seconds.

It’s not clear whether a technology-induced loss of patience persists even when we’re not using the technology. But I would hypothesize (based on what I see in myself and in others) that our sense of time is indeed changing in a lasting way. Digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more antagonistic toward delays of all sorts—and perhaps more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli. Because our experience of time is so important to our experience of life, it strikes me that these kinds of technology-induced changes in our perceptions can have particularly broad consequences. In any event, it seems like something worth worrying about, if you can spare the time.

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