How much of our lives will we spend walking around in a field searching for a 3G signal?
When I was a child, I became obsessed by a whole series of statistics of more or less uncertain provenance-—how long, during your lifetime, you will spend waiting at traffic lights or queuing at a shop till, and so on. The odd one didn’t bear up at all when you thought about it: how would you devise an experiment to establish how many spiders the average person swallows in his or her sleep over the course of their life? Others seemed to be plausibly rooted in fact, though, and were no less compelling.
When you’re a child, time is—or, at least seems to be—a limitless resource. Still, the idea that of one’s allotted 3-score and 10 one would spend 25 years asleep, 15 years at work, six years eating and a year on the khazi gave even my eight-year-old self pause.
Indeed, on learning that I could expect to spend a month and a half or so brushing my teeth it occurred to me that by resigning myself to poor dental hygiene I’d have weeks longer to really live—to say nothing of the consequent savings I’d almost certainly make on kissing (two weeks), having sex (four weeks) and waiting for my mercifully non-existent wife to finish using the bathroom (six years).
These lists need updating, though. In the early 1980s, the demands on our time were much simpler. There wasn’t much to do but brush your teeth, osculate, eat spiders and fill Panini sticker albums. We probably spent two or three days, in total, simply reciting catchphrases from Steve Wright in the Afternoon, or exclaiming: “Oooh, Gary Davies!” Hwær cwom?
Most, though not all, of the great time-sinks of today are down to the explosion of digital technology and—supremely—the internet. The last study I was able to find suggested we now spend five years of our life online—and most of that, if we’re honest, is spent wilfing.
You know wilfing, surely? It’s the sort of aimless, directionless, nose-following internet browsing (from WWILF—“what was I looking for?”) that leads you to know such pointless facts as how long you can expect to spend online in your life and, for that matter, what “wilfing” means. I’ve spent two hours wilfing already this morning, which spread over a lifetime is—I don’t even want to think about it. Other time wasters might include:
• Walking around in a field with your phone held over your head in search of a 3G signal: three weeks
• Rummaging in the back of the spices cupboard in the hope of finding an obscure ingredient for an Ottolenghi recipe: eight days
• Answering cold callers: two weeks
• Listening to “menu options” on the phone to the bank/ mortgage company/ insurance company etc: 13 months
• Attempting to figure out the optimal mobile phone tariff/ utilities package/ TV-and-internet deal: seven months
• Playing Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja on your smartphone while pretending to be parenting: 11 months
• Pressing F5 to refresh the page in the futile hope that someone has sent you an email: three weeks.
• Waiting for an assistant to reset the self-service check-out: six months
• Waiting for “ripen at home” plums to ripen before giving up and throwing them away: 26 months
And so on. All this suggests that the long-held dream of technology giving us a leisure society is retreating before us like a will-o’-the-wisp.
Our relationship with time is entering a fifth age. The prehistoric order, as I understand it, saw us all spending an insane amount of time digging, delving and so forth. Then we invented exchange and the division of labour—which made the digging and delving go that bit further and, in due course, gave us a lie-in because if we gave them a turnip somebody else might be prepared to make our clothes.
Then came—boom!—industrialisation, which went hand in hand with clock time (thank you, EP Thompson), and which gave birth to Fordism and all that malarkey. Then the 20th century consumer revolution brought those time benefits to the ordinary punter, in the form of washing machines, dishwashers, hoovers, cars and running this and that—which saved us from years spent grooming post horses, beating carpets and lugging buckets of cholera-rich water back from the local well.
And then… and then… Well, we seem to have hit a wall. In the post-consumer age the ceaselessly mutating, inescapable appetency for capital, having (supposedly) given us all this free time, is finding ever more ways to trick us into wasting it. Thanks, capital. Thanks a bunch.