Re-tooling tech: will machine learning give us all more time back?

28 June, 2018 · 4 min read

Chronic chronophobia, the fear of time passing too quickly, is nothing new. But is technology making it worse, and can machine learning save us?

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As the pace of life quickens, evidence suggests that our subjective sense of time is accelerating with it. Reluctantly, we are facing up to the fact that we don’t have all the time in the world.

Louis Armstrong’s final hit song plays a cruel joke on the listener. In 1969, Armstrong recorded the theme for the sixth film in the James Bond series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The song, We Have All the Time in the World, is a sentimental jazz number that features Armstrong on vocals rather than trumpet. It ebbs and flows gently as Armstrong opens with the title line, assuring the listener that they – bewilderingly – have all the time in the world.

There is a clear sting in the tail, however. The song is intended to be ironic, as the composers enlisted Armstrong to sing the words because he could deliver them in a way that pokes fun at our relationship with time, specifically our tendency to ignore the fact that it is running out. Now, our lives are causing us to feel like time is passing us by at a faster rate than ever before. Time acceleration

Our understanding of time has always been complex and dependent upon our emotional state. It flies when you’re having fun and crawls when you’re bored. In her 2004 book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Stanford professor Pamela M Lee identified a new anxiety around the passage of time. Chronophobia, she wrote, is “an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of”. Lee found that this feeling was especially rife among the elderly and those serving time in prison.

Twelve years on, evidence is emerging that shows how our increased use of devices is causing subjective time to speed up, and we are stepping into an era in which chronophobia seems to have become a prevailing state of mind. A study by James Cook University supported this claim. In an experiment, researchers analysed individuals’ experiences of how time passed when they were using devices, and when they were not.

“I’ve found some indication that interacting with technology and technocentric societies has increased some type of pacemaker within us,” researcher Dr Aoife McLoughlin tells The Guardian. “While it might help us to work faster, it also makes us feel more pressured by time.”

Urgency over importance

Information technology promised to make us more efficient, time-effective and bring greater convenience to our lives, but Dr McLoughlin’s work exposes a fallacy where devices have filled our lives rather than enabled us to live them better. As our means of communication become more immediate, our responses themselves increase to match them.

“We are under experiential assault from the prods, pokes and cues of permanently connected devices, and this establishes a series of expectations to do with our experience,” explains Dr Tom Chatfield, author and technology philosopher. “We have less patience than ever, and these behaviours are actively driving out the slow with the expense of the fast. Our subjected experience of time is dominated by our efforts to deal with information overload, and we prioritise urgency at the expense of importance.”

Re-tooling technology

It doesn’t have to be this way. The next raft of technological innovation will require less of our attention as machine learning enables us to outsource many of the repetitive actions associated with our use of devices. Beyond this, new metrics are being developed that gauge the real efficacy of our digital tools, rather than their success being measured simply by how much time people spend using apps and services.

“The success of a tool isn’t measured by how often you use it, but by how well it does the job,” says Daljit Singh, chief design officer of ANNA. “In thinking about our day-to-day tasks, many of them we would prefer to outsource altogether. Trying to keep up with the rate of emails saps your time, but removing your need to answer them gives you more.”

The rise of chronophobia may then be a growing pain associated with the present stage of technology, something that will vanish when our tools become more sophisticated, and we get better at filtering the noise. For the time being, however, we need to remember Armstrong’s words in the song, and how not to take them at face value.

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