In Praise of Wasting Time
1 A Village in Cambodia
Not long ago, I found myself in a small village in a remote area of Cambodia. Many rural areas in the world have modern plumbing, electric ovens, satellite TVs, and other such technological conveniences, but not this one. The inhabitants of Tramung Chrum live in one-room huts without electricity or running water. Dangling light bulbs in the huts are powered by car batteries. Food is cooked over open fires. The villagers support themselves by growing rice, watermelons, and cucumbers. Their religion is a version of moderate Islam, called Imam San Cham, combined with animism. When someone needs healing, the villagers perform a ceremony in which they summon the spirits of ancestors, monkeys, and horses. The ghosts inhabit the bodies of the villagers, who dance wildly through the night. Other than these moments, the villagers go about their lives in quiet calm. They rise with the sun. After breakfast, they herd their cows out for grazing, then walk to the rice fields and tend to their crops. They return to their huts as the light starts to dim and gather firewood for cooking the evening meal.
Each morning, the women ride their bicycles on a rutted red dirt road to a market ten miles away to trade for goods and food
they cannot grow themselves. Through a translator, I asked one of the women how long the daily trip took. She gave me a puzzled look and said, “I never thought about that.”
I was startled at her disinterest in time. And envious. We in the “developed” world have created a frenzied lifestyle in which not a minute is to be wasted. The precious twenty-four hours of each day are carved up, dissected, and reduced to ten-minute units of efficiency. We become agitated and angry in the waiting room of a doctor’s office if we’ve been sitting for ten minutes or more. We grow impatient if our laser printers don’t spit out at least five pages per minute. And we must be connected to the grid at all times. We take our smartphones and laptops with us on vacation. We go through our email at restaurants. Or our online bank accounts while walking in the park. The teenagers I know (and some of their parents) check their smartphones at least every five minutes of their “free” waking hours. At night, many sleep with their phones on their chests or next to their beds. When the school day ends, our children are loaded with piano lessons and dance classes and soccer games and extra language classes. Our university curricula are so crammed that our young people don’t have time to digest and reflect on the material they are supposed to be learning.
I plead guilty myself. If I take the time to examine my own twenty-four hours per day, here’s what I find: from the instant I open my eyes in the morning until I turn out the lights at night, I am at work on some project. First thing in the morning,
I check my email. For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. I find a project, indeed I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole. If I have an extra hour, I can work at my laptop on an article or class lesson. If I have a few minutes, I can answer a letter or read an online news story. With only seconds, I can check phone messages. Unconsciously, without thinking about it, I have subdivided my day into smaller and smaller units of efficient time use, until there are no holes left, no breathing spaces remaining. I rarely goof off. I rarely follow a path that I think might lead to a dead end. I rarely “waste” time. And certainly, I would never ever spend a couple of hours of each day going to the market without knowing exactly how long the trip took and figuring out how to listen to an audiobook on the way.
It’s not only me. All around me, I feel a sense of urgency, a vague fear of not being plugged in, a fear of not keeping up. I feel like Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial, who lives in a world of ubiquitous suspicion and powerful but invisible authority. Yet there is no authority here, only a pervasive mentality.
I can remember a time when I did not live in this way. I can remember those days of my childhood when I would slowly walk home from school by myself and take long detours through the woods. With the silence broken only by the sound of my own footsteps, I would follow turtles as they lumbered down a dirt path. Where were they going, and why? I would build play forts out of fallen trees. I would sit on the banks
of Cornfield Pond and waste hours watching tadpoles in the shallows or the sway of water grasses in the wind. My mind meandered. I thought about what I wanted for dinner that night, whether God was a man or a woman, whether tadpoles knew they were destined to become frogs, what it would feel like to be dead, what I wanted to be when I became a man, the fresh bruise on my knee. When the light began fading, I wandered home.
I ask myself: What happened to those careless, wasteful hours at the pond? How has the world changed? Of course, part of the answer is simply that I grew up. Adulthood undeniably brings responsibilities and career pressures and a certain awareness of the weight of life. Yet that is only part of what has happened. Indeed, an enormous transformation has occurred in the world from the 1950s and ’60s of my youth to today. A transformation so vast that it has altered all that we say and do and think, yet often in ways so subtle and ubiquitous that we are hardly aware of them. Among other things, the world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public. For want of a better phrase, I will call this world “the wired world.” By this term, I do not mean only digital communication, the Internet, and social media. I also mean the frenzied pace and noise of the world.
There are many different aspects of today’s time-driven, wired existence, but they are connected. All can be traced to recent technological advances and economic prosperity in a complex web of cause and effect. Throughout history, the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication. The speed of communication, in turn, has been central to the technological advance that has led to the Internet, social media, and the vast and all-consuming network that I simply call “the grid.” That same technology has also been part of the general economic progress that has increased productivity in the workplace, which, when coupled with the time-equals-money equation, has led to a heightened awareness of the commercial and goal-oriented uses of time—at the expense of the more reflective, free-floating, and non-goal-oriented uses of time.