Monday, March 23, 2015

All We Have Is Time, and Too Many People Want Mine (2 Jan. 2014))

A hundred years from now we'll all be dead!
A hundred years from now we'll all be dead!
So no matter what is done and no matter what is said,
A hundred years from now and we'll all be dead!
— Moderately traditional kids' song

           My mother's three brothers were dead before I finished school, so they had to have died at a fairly young age; my mother lived to 69, and my father made it to 72. Me, I'm about to turn 71, and, I've been thinking about time. "A hundred years from now and we'll all be dead," indeed; but it's going to be a good deal sooner for me.

            Anyway, I'm feeling more up close and personal on a theme I've dealt with before more philosophically: the insightful if overstated teaching, "All we have is time."

            This idea is part of the premise of Harlan Ellison's great dystopian SF story, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," but Ellison's take is a Modern one, from the world of railroad schedules and analog clocks, and Charles Chaplin's clown caught in the gears of a giant machine: the world of Big-Brother style totalitarianism. Such threats are still with us, God knows, but I think the long-term danger in the United States is more like what we see in Dave Eggers's The Circle (2013): a kindly, largely free-market, little-brother totalitarianism, where the assaults on increasing number of people's time aren't so much "Fordist" assembly lines as multiple screens and windows of office computers and the repeated demands made upon us over our networks and smartphones.

            The Circle is not a subtle book, and its main concern is with privacy, and the decline thereof, with time usurpation a minor point. So the theme of time is handled quickly and directly. Eggers's  postmodern version of the assembly-line speedup in Modern Times (1936) is a digitalized speedup built into the digitalized workplace. The anti-hero of The Circle is Mae Holland, who starts out in customer relations with one screen in front of her and goals for how many customer contacts to handle with what degree of satisfaction. And, as you can guess, the screens keep multiplying, along with the tasks for her, significantly including tasks to keep up her social life as a member of the corporate community.

            If the community offers all sorts of activities, isn't it one's duty to participate? If one can provide feedback and reassurance and reinforcement to one's colleagues and many Facebook-analog "friends," doesn't it become one's duty to do so?

            Of course it does! And in the chilling parody/appropriation of the three slogans of The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, at The Circle we have the three-part mantra, "Secrets are Lies. / Caring Is Sharing. / Privacy Is Theft."

            Again, and very obviously, the main concern here is with privacy, but "Caring Is Sharing" also has a time component. Mae is overwhelmed by inputs on her screens not just by her business tasks but also in sharing socially. The point is made explicit when Mae's parents explain that they have fled Circle involvement — involvement was the price for their much-needed health insurance — for reasons beyond the surveillance of their lives The Circle demands.

            Mae has gone "transparent" and is on-line and communicating visuals and audios almost without interruption, and she shares with her many followers her parents' medical challenges, and what would correspond to their e-mail address.          On their way off the grid, Mae's parents send her and us the arithmetic calculating that even their cursory responses to all the well-wishes and advice and "Smiles" (= "Like's") sent them would require sixteen hours of labor a day.

            If you can keep in "Constant Contact" with all your "Friends," caring people do so.
            Similarly with offering "feedback" and "input" into the system. Mae and the co-workers of her "pod" (no shit: pod, as with dolphins) really do work hard to serve their customers, and, when it gets down to it, their careers at The Circle depend on getting good scores on the quick surveys their customers are asked to fill out after each contact with customer service. I, for one, used to get paid to take surveys on products — mostly batteries, for whatever reason — but, golly gee, I feel hard-pressed when asked to fill in a survey without being paid to do so if it will help keep employed some phone-bank serf. "Oh, and remember: anything less than 'Exceptional Service' is a bad mark for me" (as I'm told, e.g., when checking out of the Service Dept. at Toyota [at The Circle, they like A+ averages: 98%]); so I take a little extra time explaining in under 200 words on some survey forms that "competent" is quite enough for me, or I take a little extra time deciding to lie rather than risk the job of a perfectly competent, if unexceptional, service rep.

            Well, you get the point; as I said, The Circle is not subtle and shouldn't be, and subtlety has never been one of my strong points. Eggers's main target is indeed mostly increasing violations of privacy through digital technology, but there is also the point of increasing violations of "the right to be let alone" in demands on our time from various government bureaus and agencies — hey, save those receipts for tax time; and classify them; and sort them; and record them — but also and sometimes overwhelmingly by bosses, businesses, family, colleagues, and friends.

            Only governments can throw us in jail for refusing to give them our time — jury duty for a few days, which is OK; a year or so in Vietnam, which is, say, more problematic — and only our bosses can fire us. Still, there are penalties if you don't do the paper work for the people insuring you, and there are different sorts of penalties if you don't get back to family and friends and Facebook "Friends" to share with the group. It is no big deal to throw out the junk snail mail or delete e-mails or text messages you don't want. But there are penalties if you toss something actually important, and deleting the crap may not take much time, but it does take time, and worrying about that missing tax bill or credit card is, well, worry.

            ("When should I expect my credit card?" / "We mailed it ten days ago." / "What was the return address on the envelope?" / "Nothing specific: That's our policy for your security." / "Well my policy is to throw out unopened any envelope without an identifiable return address." / "We can send you a new card; expect it in three days." / "Okay, I'll spend a week feeling up envelopes. [Hmm … Sorry I put it that way.]")
            In 1976, Thomas J. Remington wrote a beautiful essay on "touch" in the fiction to the mid-70's of Ursula K. Le Guin. He noted that Le Guin (who is a communitarian sort) highly values touch and human connectedness. In my scholarly mode, I agreed with Tom but pointed out that "touch" in Le Guin's works could be bad. It is good to be in touch with family, friends, community, tribe, and outward; it is good to be part of a communal network. But a network can become a net, a trap; touch can be the communication of love; or it can be when you're trapped between your bratty kid brother and sister in the back seat of the car with them seeing how often they can touch you touch you touch you until you go quietly berserk. It is good to spend time together with the family. And then more time, and then you bloody well have to get away from the kids, and they have to get away from you and have time for themselves.

            It is a good thing to get some time off from family and friends, and one of the great gifts of the labor movement was the weekend, when one can get away from work. First, if nothing else, it is a very bad thing to strangle your children or for them to take a baseball bat to you: prudence and decency recommend some time to oneself. Second, though, it is exploitation or even expropriation if your boss or country or loved ones demand "constant contact" and have you on call 24/7.

            A quotation attributed to Oscar Wilde is "The trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings." Whoever said it, the point is a valid one, even for a social democrat such as I. "All we have is time," in a sense, and people should not take any from us without solid payment, including their time returned. We humans are social animals and bonding and family and community and solidarity are good things; we are also individuals, with a right, much of the time, to be let alone, to quite literally seize time for ourselves and hold it precious.

            Not all property is theft, P-J Proudhon's slogan notwithstanding, nor is most privacy theft; privacy and refusal to have our time imposed upon can be taking back that which is most essentially ours. 

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