Today, we compress time. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Consider this, says computer
systems manager Richard Madaus: You're chopping
vegetables in the kitchen. The pasta's heating in
the microwave. The news is on TV. A load of washing
is running in the garage. You're using the phone on
your shoulder to arrange a meeting. You're getting
so much done -- far more than my hardworking and
efficient parents ever managed to do at one time.
It's no surprise that machines simplify tasks and
let us work more efficiently. But the flip side is
a surprise. Just ask how much easier your life is.
How much more leisure do you have? It turns out you
do not have more leisure than your grandparents
At first blush, this looks like one more
Parkinson's law situation: "The work expands to
fill the time." With vacuum cleaners we now keep
our rugs cleaner. With washing machines we change
clothes daily instead of weekly. But, as technology
moves from saving labor to speeding communication,
something larger is going on. We aren't just
filling time, we're compressing it as well.
I recently wrote a book review. The same day, I
sent it to the editor in word-processed form. Later
that day the edited version came back for approval.
It wasn't just ready for type-setting, it was
finished and typeset that same day. What would've
taken months in 1990 was now finished in hours.
This goes far beyond mere efficiency. That task
would've sat on my plate and slowed me from taking
on new tasks. Now it's done and I'm off to other
As turn-around times shrink, our expectations rise,
and productivity accelerates. Labor-saving is only
part of the story. The other part is about
labor-compressing. Madaus says, "Look at how
decision-making is speeding. Yesterday we were
content to wait two weeks for an answer to a
letter. Today, someone who doesn't answer e-mail
within the hour is an obstructionist."
The speed of decision-making is changing the very
character of productivity. One thing concluded, the
next begins. It's not that productivity is
illusory. The electronic media really do offer the
potential for living fuller lives. But we haven't
yet found a speed controller that'll let us do so.
As we drive ourselves into a dither, it's worth
remembering that new communications media bring
vast change into our lives. The invention of
writing and the invention of printing took, not
years, not generations, but centuries to
Two thousand years ago, Plutarch told us to "be
ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all." But he
said something else as well:
Ease and speed in doing a thing do not give the
work lasting solidity or exactness of beauty.
And that comes back to haunt us. The question is
not whether to enter this brave new world, for it
is hardly a matter of choice. But we clearly have
much to learn about how we should live in it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds