It's time we realised the true value of our time

Recent research indicates that two-thirds of phone users admit they regularly lose their temper as a result of being put on hold…

Recent research indicates that two-thirds of phone users admit they regularly lose their temper as a result of being put on hold. This new phenomenon of "phone rage" should give us pause for thought about the quality of progress in the technological age. One of the great cliches of what we call modern society is that time is money. But this is misleading. Certainly, if one looks superficially at what we term progress, it seems that at the core of it is the impulse to make more and more savings of human time.

On the face of it, we build bigger, wider roads to get us ever faster to our destinations, because our time is so valuable we cannot afford to waste it. We dispense with quaint, arcane traditions such as waitress service because they are inefficient and time-wasting.

We carry mobile phones or install automated call-handling systems because our time is more precious than that of other people. We live with this reality all the time, and it makes sense because we have no time to think about it.

Sometimes we even find ourselves believing that all this emphasis on time-saving is for our benefit - that the mobile phone is our servant. We become the unpaid evangelists for a form of progress which should alarm us but which, at most, causes occasional mild irritation. We wait in line, or on the line, because everyone else does. "Time is money", we say.


TRY applying this mantra to the operation of a self-service restaurant in, say, a busy airport, at breakfast-time. First you queue at the food counter, put your food tray on the counter and wait for the breakfast to be prepared. The counter will have several people behind it, tripping one another up.

You will move slowly down the line, moving your tray along as you do so. Finally, you will get to submit your order, and in another few minutes your breakfast will be on your tray. You will then move off in search of tea or coffee. In an aeon or two, it will be time to queue for the till.

Having negotiated the checkout, only one queue remains - for knives, forks, sugar, etc. If you have been careful, you will have had to queue only four times. It will have taken nearly 15 minutes and your breakfast will long since have gone cold.

Clearly, in this case, the time of the hapless and hungry traveller is not regarded as valuable. On the contrary, although the traveller may be rushing to catch a flight, his or her time is not regarded as valuable at all: only the time of the service provider is counted. The traveller's time is a free resource, to be utilised by the service provider to enhance his profits by recruiting his customers as unpaid waiters and waitresses.

The same principle applies to a range of phenomena, including buses requiring exact change and telephone-answering services which tell you that all the lines are busy and your call will be answered "in rotation".

Clearly, everyone's time is not regarded as economically equal. But, more than that, what we can observe is that the same person's time may in one set of circumstances be valuable and in another have no value at all. If the man whose job it is to fill the plates with sausages and eggs at the airport cafeteria happens to be himself travelling one morning, he will find that his time has suddenly plummeted in value. One day he is frantically rushing to fill more and more plates in less and less time, and another he is standing in a queue holding his own rapidly cooling breakfast in his hands.

It's not difficult to see the point: time is not always money, and this modern mantra now needs to be revised. Obviously, only time that can be made subject to financial exchange, and this only in the most immediate sense, has value. The conventional wisdom of our market-saturated culture allows us to believe that we live in an age when efficiency demands that we waste not one second because time is so valuable, but in reality each transaction places value only on the time from which it achieves an almost instantaneous cash return.

Human time is cheap, except when someone can be persuaded to value it. Each of us in life has, if we're lucky, just one economically viable function. In all other matters, our time has been devalued beyond consideration.

This syndrome used to be most visible in the relationships between the haves and the have-nots. Let's say that the devaluation of time first caused less fortunate citizens to be driven outside the narrow-band time zone where they could be exploited or marginalised. There, they paid for everything in the hard currencies of pain and cold and hunger. Time, for them, came to resemble a South American currency in the wake of a coup: it took several suitcases of their hours to match an envelope of someone else's.

This caused a bit of a run on the tick-tock. Those of us who remained inside the narrow band of the comfortably-off time zone had to install expensive alarm systems and build higher walls to protect the time-saving fruits of our relentless activity from the preying hands of those for whom they were but tokens of the discounted nature of their own lives. We had no time to think and they had time to brood.

BECAUSE of our acquiescence in the culture of the devaluation of time, we for whom time was still money had to bear a financial cost for our refusal of the responsibility for the fact that those whose time had been devalued now found themselves with time to kill. But it is no longer just a question of dividing the world between those whose time is valuable and those who are paid a pittance to withhold their time from the marketplace. The culture now divides each of us against himself. The clock has turned on us all.

The culture of time-is-money is based on a peculiar and invisible form of selfishness, which conceals from the selfish the damage it does them. Each transaction is wholly indifferent to all external considerations. Just as it seems to make sense that we maximise our own gain and remain oblivious of the bigger picture, we accept that others will do likewise. But every tick has an answering tock.

The man shimmying down your drainpipe with your video-recorder is simply reclaiming the lost value of his own time. He is restoring balance to the real economy, transferring a token of society's in-built differential to the other side of the tracks.

We are conspirators in our own exploitation. Not only do we not complain when we arrive at our table to find our breakfast is cold, we actually expect it to be cold. Its coldness is not simply the price of living in the modern world, it is evidence of our modernity.

If a waitress in a frilly apron came along and asked us if she might get us anything we wouldn't know where to look. As in practically every area of modern life, we "choose" the option which appears most advantageous to ourselves, but are blind to the consequences which this unleashes on the community, which also happens to include us.