Friday, May 20, 2016

A Recent Exchange on Money and Time

Below is a recent exchange with my friend Rob Ochshorn, who often writes emails instead of blog posts to work out his thoughts. Here I am borrowing not only his technique, but also his thoughts, on a topic I have recently begun to think about and would like to think about more.

Seth and Aliza were included non-consensually. I continue to include them for context: this conversation happened with an audience.


from:Jean Yang
to:Aliza Aufrichtig,
Robert M Ochshorn,
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
date:Sun, May 15, 2016 at 10:57 AM
subject:Cultural shorthand for money and time

Our society has a widely used abstraction for things that cost money ($$$) but there's not similar concept for time.

I started thinking about this because I wanted a way to express things that are time-expensive (was thinking ⌚⌚⌚).

Related to this, it would be nice if people could tell me how much time things cost, rather than just how much money. Thinking about this made me wonder how much our lack of shorthand for this idea is a result of our entire society not caring about time as much as money, or because the people who shape our cultural shorthand (for instance the people running Yelp) care more about money than time.

Zooming out even further, isn't it interesting that Silicon Valley has become so obsessed with helping people live forever--while perpetuating a culture that steals people's time and youth in an unprecedented all-consuming way? (Based on how you think about it, it is or isn't unprecedented. Let's discuss.) I wonder what this means...


from:Robert Ochshorn
to:Jean Yang
cc:Aliza Aufrichtig,
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
date:Mon, May 16, 2016 at 2:33 AM
subject:Re: Cultural shorthand for money and time

If only the singularity-upload fantasy of an eternal life were based on a mature understanding of leisure! I’m using “leisure” to mean the non-financialized use of time. This distinguishes it from the manner of time that Silicon Valley loves to “save” you. I mean, most of these stupid startups justify their work in terms of saving you time. Some startups allow you to convert your money into somebody else’s time (InstaCart, TaskRabbit, Magic), while others use automation and interface, in the grand tradition of the dishwasher, to let you do your work/chores faster (“so you can focus on …”). 

I would dispute your claim that our society cares about money more than time. I think it’s worse than that: much tech marketing and ideology[0] is based on the myth of a temporal-financial relativity: the conversion of money into time (the inverse, time->money, being what we call a job).

Your Yelp example is interesting. It makes me think of the 50s fantasy of “fast food.” Silicon Valley has proposed a modernization of this concept (Soylent), which should make clear what the purpose of this time-saving is: that we will have more time to work! In other words: what is the point of “saving time” if not to prepare or enjoy a nice meal?

Iconographically, there’s some design precedent creeping into popular consciousness. Medium, for example, numerically estimates the time an article will take its average user to ingest (“5 min read”). I’m kicking myself for not introducing you to my friend Tristan, who just passed through Cambridge for a Berkman lecture and runs a Time Well Spent movement that sees itself as a time-respecting “Fair Trade” equivalent for tech. What I like about your “⌚⌚⌚ is that it implies a depth and prestige to a potential long-form experience—it makes me feel like I will be taken out of my normal, fragmentary, hectic existence and transported into a deep, coherent, and focused place for a while. The watches culturally suggest wealth and tradition. It’s a very different feel with hourglasses (⌛⌛⌛)—perhaps the difference between being in control of one’s time verses our lives slipping away from us.

There’s a media-theoretical concept that’s important here: Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the reversal. The automobile makes us faster, but when you extend the concept as far as it goes, we’re stuck sitting in traffic. Ivan Illich took this even further, making a brutal calculation[1] of a car’s speed based on all of the factors that allow us to occasionally sit in a car cruising down the open road.

So for precedent I would propose McDonald’s, the dishwasher, and the automobile. Think about the ways they play together: teenagers working at McDonald’s to buy a car while their mothers enter the workforce, aided at home by the dishwasher.

Warm greetings from Ramallah! Time definitely seems to work differently here.

Your correspondent,

[0] This is slightly off-topic, but it’s too lovely to omit. From Levy’s Inside the Googleplex, a great snapshot how time and latency are discussed/traded within Google (emph mine):

After the Code Yellow, Google set a companywide OKR (the objective key result metric Google uses to set goals) to fight latency. To help meet its goals, the company created a market-based incentive program for product teams to juice up performance—a cap-and-trade model in which teams were mandated latency ceilings or maximum performance times. If a team didn’t make its benchmarks, says H√∂lzle, it accrued a debt that had to be paid off by barter with a team that exceeded its benchmarks. “You could trade for an engineer or machines. Whatever,” he says. The metric for this exchange was, oddly enough, human lives. The calculation goes like this: average human life expectancy is seventy years. That’s about two billion seconds. If a product has 100 million users and unnecessarily wastes four seconds of a user’s time every day, that was more than a hundred people killed in a year. So if the Gmail team wasn’t meeting its goals, it might go to the Picasa team and ask for ten lives to lift its speed budget into the black. In exchange, the Gmailers might yield a thousand servers from its allocation or all its massage tickets for the next month.

[1] From Wikipedia:

…the concept of counterproductivity: when institutions of modern industrial society impede their purported aims. For example, Ivan Illich calculated that, in America in the 1970s, if you add the time spent to work to earn the money to buy a car, the time spent in the car (including traffic jam), the time spent in the health care industry because of a car crash, the time spent in the oil industry to fuel cars ...etc., and you divide the number of kilometres traveled per year by that, you obtain the following calculation: 10000 km per year per person divided by 1600 hours per year per American equals 6 km per hour. So the real speed of a car would be about 3.7 miles per hour.


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