Where Have All the Hours Gone?

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

I overheard a faculty member
at a university excuse herself from a meeting because she had to return to deliver
her barely six-month-old infant to a Soho class in Mozart, presumably guaranteed
to lay the neural foundation for a grownup as artistically sensitive and close
to occupational perfection as Wolfgang Amadeus himself. The torments of ambition
to succeed in an imprecise, unpredictable system still decades in the future
are now being applied to helpless children by parents, who evidently cannot
conceive of supporting activities without discernible payoff for the precious
resume in preparation. So their little bambinos have to suffer something rather
like the agonies of graduate school. As they proceed through the hoops of the
system they will–if they are what are generally called "good kids"–become
engulfed in an ever more demanding array of classes, enrichment programs and
pursuits ranging from a cappella singing to delivering snacks to oldsters to
mastering Beginning Sanscrit to evaluating changes in Bogart’s body movement
in his later films.

This is a new kind of Survivor
game: Life as Job Application. At least in the old days, such personal perfectionism
was linked to the try-outs for The Big Eternal Career in the Sky. Now it is
umbilically connected to jobs at Goldman Sachs.

That’s for youngsters.
Among adults, there are new work tools implanted under the skin, like cellphones
and e-mail and systems of instant wireless communication with the entire planet
at once. The obvious result is that no one is ever away from anything. Everywhere
and nowhere and here and there are the same. Labor-saving devices create work.
Because human endeavor is now sustained by the near-perfect independence of
electricity from human interference, human activity and especially work are
no longer linked to light and heat and cold and time. Everything goes on all
the time. The bazaar never closes. The financial papers list stock prices for
trades made after trading ends for the day. Surely the 7-Eleven will soon change
its name to 24/7. Pagers, answering machines, FedEx, InterFedEx, wireless e-mailers
and no doubt other treasures still lurking in Finnish or Japanese labs will
make it extremely difficult for people seeking a week or day or hour or minute
away from the world. They will have a lot to answer for.

E-mail is a truly remarkable
addition to human communication and to the saving of time and the expansion
of groups of people able to exchange real information rapidly and without distortion.
People who haven’t e-mail and therefore obligate those seeking to communicate
with them to telephone or write letters must earn the same baffled and irritated
response as people who refused telephones when they first hit the streets, so
anyone with a message had to write or, if urgent, walk it over. I don’t
know how I lived without it.

But increasingly I don’t
know how I can live with it. The volume of material is incredible and only grows.
It is very much as if you would have to double the size of your mailbox every
month. Except with e-mail you don’t provide space, you provide time. While
you may be able to buy more space, you can’t time.

But why pay attention? A
recent case in point is the spiky fuss surrounding the publication of a book
by Patrick Tierney, which included the suggestion that two Michigan scientists,
James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, were somehow responsible for the spread of
measles among the Yanomami Indians of South America. (Alex Cockburn wrote about
it for New York Press.) Before the book came out two anthropologists
who have been Chagnon’s enemies for years wrote an allegedly private letter
to the president of the American Anthropological Association saying the publication
of the book threatened the reputation of anthropologists and Steps Should be
Taken. In the letter, the activities of the folk from Michigan were said to
be closer to Josef Mengele than Joseph Conrad.

Well. What juice. The letter
was immediately faxed around the world. The New Yorker published an excerpt,
and them thin electric wires were humming with endless communiques on the subject
from people everywhere and often. The volume of traffic was immense. It was
all very interesting. But it was a flagrant waste of time, because anyone who
knew anything about the story knew that it would turn out that the book was
at best an exaggeration and at worst an inept slander, and that the accusing
anthropologists were postmodernist simplifiers hellishly confused by the real
facts of human biology, whose charges could not possibly be sustained. Meanwhile,
the University of Michigan weighed in with its own magisterial investigation
and countered all the charges, and it will be interesting to see who sues whom
now, and what the result is.

But without e-mail this
would have taken months to wend its way through the various steps. Very few
people would have been involved, or would have felt they had a responsibility
to keep up with the issue and comment if necessary. Countless human hours would
have been spared the perusal of unnecessary documents about a falsely beguiling
issue. I’m sure that I myself am responsible for forwarding to people the
equivalent of as much copy as in a pre-Christmas issue of the Sunday New
York Times
. Too much, because it was too easy.

So the ease of communication
has increased the pressure for self-editing and sharply threatens peace of mind.
Just as the dozens of tv channels increase the pressure, the countless magazines,
the voluminous newspapers, the CDs, DVDs, the ads on everything from buses to
National Public Radio to movie theaters, the endless polling and cold-calling
from people offering trips to Orlando if if if you will only…

From little childhood interrupted
by fierce kindergarten to a quiet stroll in a garden interrupted by a cellphone,
They are after us. Watch your back. Front. Sides. Top. Bottom.