Wrestling with Time & Technology
How to Live in the Here and Now
A technological and cultural revolution has locked mankind in a bruising battle with the concept of time. Amid the white noise of the digital world, we are losing our grip on the meaning of ‘now’.
At the same time, we are trying to come to terms with the possibility of ultra-long lives, where death itself is pushed into the distant future or defeated entirely.
Welcome to the era of the quick win versus the slow gain, in which instant gratification meets planning for extended futures.
In his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations author Thomas L Friedman addresses the challenges of living in a two-speed world.
‘We can either push back against technological advances or acknowledge that humanity has a new challenge,’ he explains. ‘We must rewire our societal tools and institutions so that they enable us to keep pace.’
In this report, The Future Laboratory examines shifting definitions and measurements of quality and quantity of time. We identify the key trends that will enable people to forge a new relationship with how they spend their personal and professional time in the years ahead.
Forever People – Silicon Valley is hacking mortality through optimisation of our bodies and minds
Cult of Busy – the rapid rise of technology is making people feel busier than ever and driving short-termism
Liberation Time –increasing lifespans and leisure time will enable wealth building across generations
Ageless Learning – as life stages reshuffle, education will become a lifelong pursuit
Mindlessness Rising – mind-wandering and procrastination will be encouraged to optimise personal and professional productivity
Slow Living – slowing the pace of life and media will be key to tackling the overwhelming flow of information
Silicon Valley is hacking mortality through optimisation of our bodies and minds.
There are powerful forces at work in the world that are intent on ensuring that many of us, particularly those in wealthy, developed countries, will live to 150 or cheat death.
Not content with the rate at which lifespans are expanding, Silicon Valley is taking on death itself to examine the possibility of immortality.
Some innovators are exploring the concept of digital resurrection, where the dead live on as digital avatars. Others are looking to halt ageing and mortality altogether.
When asked in an interview with The New York Times about why everyone in Silicon Valley is so obsessed with immortality, PayPal founder Peter Thiel replied: ‘Why is everyone else so indifferent about their mortality?’
It’s a comment that sums up the dismissive attitude held by Thiel and many of his peers towards accepting as a certainty that we are mortals with limited time at our disposal.
As tempting as it may be to dismiss such ventures as billionaire’s fantasies, several highly funded start-ups are already trying to turn their dream of immortality, in one form or another, into a reality.
California-based Ambrosia is studying the effects of infusions of young plasma to examine whether it can halt or reverse the ageing process. Fellow start-up Humai is seeking to achieve its vision of eternal life by transplanting human consciousness into machine technology.
Technological advances like these point towards a future of optimised humans with very long lifespans who will want to make the most of their extra time on Earth.
Hugh Herr, head of the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, is one of the leading technologists that is exploring ways to develop bionic body parts that optimise human performance and longevity. ‘As we step into the future, more and more people will have parts of their bodies that are designed, that are part of the built world,’ he explains.
‘What is intriguing is that the designed part of the body can improve in time, whereas the normal body, the biological body, degrades in time.’
The demographic and societal shifts implied by these scientific alternatives to ageing and death present both opportunities and challenges.
Ian Ground, senior philosophy lecturer at the University of Sunderland’s Centre for Lifelong Learning, says: ‘Typically people get more conservative as they get older. They could become resistant to change, so what is going to happen to innovation? There are questions about society stagnating. Most of us would not want the world to be run by our grandfathers.’
Whether you believe the concept of human immortality to be positive or negative, the momentum of innovation in this area shows little signs of slowing. As we look to a future of living longer or indefinitely, we will find new ways to balance both the length and immediacy of our future lives.
The rapid rise of technology is making people feel busier than ever and driving short-termism.
In addition to opening up the possibility of an indefinite stay on the planet, technology is warping our appreciation of time. A cacophony of digital technology is making us feel like we have far less time than we actually do. We have just as much leisure time as we did 50 years ago. But the always-on pressures of 24/7 digital living have convinced us that we are busier than ever before.
Professor Judy Wajcman, author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, says that if we feel time pressured by technology it is largely our own fault.
‘We have actively signed up to the Cult of Busy. Technology giving us access to millions of things to do is only so seductive in a culture where we value, more than anything, a very busy, full life. A life of maximum activity, a life of experiencing as many things as possible and quickly. All the images of a good life from Silicon Valley, where geniuses never sleep,’ she explains.
In her book, Wajcman describes the ‘time pressure paradox’. She says that while research shows we have more leisure time, our ability to spread it across activities and devices makes us feel busier. Technological multitasking is reshaping the quality of our time.
Wajcman believes that the acceleration of technology will continue to accelerate our expectations. ‘The technologies often create new activities, new standards and new expectations,’ she says. ‘That is why I think they never, in themselves, save time.’
This is driving people to feel that to be successful they must appear to be busy. Wajcman likens this to the idea of ‘leaving one’s jacket on the back of the chair’.
‘It looks like you’re devoted to the company 24/7, and that is seen as a good thing,’ she explains. ‘Whereas we know, rationally, that unless people have time out and time to think and recharge their batteries, they are not that productive.’
The Cult of Busy is driving widespread short-term thinking. Distracted by the white noise of digital multitasking and the unpredictability of an accelerating tech-disrupted world, generations are failing to plan for their lengthening futures
Some 56% of US Millennials are living paycheck-to-paycheck and 45% are not saving for retirement, with 81% and 77% citing more immediate priorities and the need to pay off debts as the primary reasons for not being able to do so, respectively, according to the 2014 Wells Fargo Millennial Study.
An exhibition by Fabrica at Tate Britain aimed to help visitors understand the thought processes behind AI. An AI system matched real-time photojournalism from Reuters with artworks from the Tate Britain archives to mimic the world of human emotions through technology
Increasing lifespans and leisure time will enable wealth building across generations.
Technological change may have been the catalyst for our split-personality understanding of time, but over the next decade it will start to offer suggestions about how we can come to a new understanding about the way that we live our lives.
A future of artificial intelligence (AI) and automated technology combined with much longer, healthier lives will not be the dystopia of unemployment and wealth inequality that many fear. Instead, a new wave of digital technologies and medical advances will liberate us to enjoy work more, spend less time working and give us extra decades to build up wealth for us and our families.
Automation’s impact on middle-income jobs is clear to see. In January 2017, Japanese insurance company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance announced that it would replace 34 employees with an AI system that can calculate payouts to policyholders. The company is ahead of the curve. A 2015 report by the Nomura Research Institute claims that nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be performed by robots by 2035.
But by 2025, today’s anxiety about automation will be tempered by a more optimistic understanding. Use of AI and machine learning for routine tasks will free people up to be more creative and intuitive rather than throw them onto the career scrapheap.
Edelman Financial Services CEO Ric Edelman believes that new levels of automation will create a new employment and lifestyle model that will make work more enjoyable for a population that will increasingly work beyond their 65th birthday.
‘You will work part time in hours and locations of your choosing, and you will take lots of sabbaticals before starting something new,’ he explains.
New ultra-long-term investment strategies for 60plus consumers’ working lives will produce new opportunities for future generations of middle-income workers to accumulate wealth.
‘Instead of investing for 20 or 30 years like most people do now you will grow money for 50 or 60 years,’ says Edelman. ‘The impact of decades of additional compound interest on your wealth will be astonishing.’
‘The impact of decades of additional compound interest on your wealth will be astonishing.’
Ric Edelman, CEO, Edelman Financial Services
As life stages reshuffle, education will become a lifelong pursuit.
By 2025, the average 70-year-old will not be spending their twilight years in a care home. They will be in a high-tech classroom training for their next job or passion project.
As life expectancy grows, the 100-year lifespan is becoming increasingly common. Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey believes that the first person to live to be 150 years old has probably already been born. This demographic shift will have profound consequences on the structure of our lives.
The established order of the life stages – education, work then retirement – will become defunct. If people live to be healthy centenarians they will almost certainly be working in productive careers until they are 80. To do so, they will need to refresh professional skillsets rendered obsolete by the pace of technological change.
‘We go to school for twelve or more years during our childhood and early adulthood, and then we are done,’ says Friedman.
‘When the pace of change gets this fast, the only way to retain lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.’
This new model of education embraces intergenerational integration, allaying Ground’s fears that a future ruling class of 150-year-olds will have outdated attitudes.
As old concepts about the stages of life are consigned to the dustbin of history, a future world run by our long-lived and healthy grandparents will be far more empathetic, balanced and time-savvy because of increased cross-generational communication.
Mind-wandering and procrastination will be encouraged to optimise personal and professional productivity.
Today’s obsession with mindfulness, or being in the now, will gradually be replaced over the next decade by mindlessness – tuning out of the manic present and indulging in both tactical learning and long-term strategic planning.
In the decade ahead, everything from the mainstream use of mind-altering drugs to professional programmes designed to encourage creative timewasting will become part of our strategy for stepping away from the always-on demands of our digital ‘now’ to rediscover the possibilities of a slower appreciation of time.
Once the preserve of hippy culture, opening the doors of perception will become more mainstream as meditation retreats give way to other therapeutic hospitality models.
Globally, there are an estimated 40 retreats that specialise in ayahuasca, a potent psychotropic brew of plants traditionally used by South American tribes as a spiritual medicine, to enable a relaxed, meditative escape.
Even without stimulants, mind-wandering – defined as task-unrelated thought – is being championed as a conduit for creative ideas. According to psychologist and philosopher Michael Corballis, this kind of drifting will be strategically necessary in the future.
‘In adapting to a complex world, we need to escape the here and now, and consider possible futures, mull over past mistakes, and understand how other people’s minds work,’ he says.
In line with this thinking, future companies will develop programmes that actively encourage employees to waste time to help them tap into their latent innovative talents.
Wasting Time on the Internet, a course devised by poet and lecturer Kenneth Goldsmith for the University of Pennsylvania, illustrates this approach in action.
The course teaches students how to enter a collective dreamscape through what is commonly described as daydreaming. Creative writing students sit silently in a room with their devices for three hours each week. Goldsmith names ‘distraction, multi-tasking and aimless drifting’ as ‘mandatory’.
‘I don’t know if you can really say what is wasting time and what isn’t,’ he explains.
‘Most of the time what we are doing is a combination of high productivity and high silliness at the same time. I’ll have my Facebook page open while I’m working on a spreadsheet. It’s not one way or the other.’
As a technological means of escapism, gaming is the ideal channel for future mindlessness programmes. Digital artist and animator Carl Burton is one of the first to tap into this with Islands, a digital project set in mundane, non-descript locations. Car parks, ATM machines and escalators are transformed into surreal experiences as users interact with them.
In an era haunted by a sense that time is beyond our control, tuning out of our communication-saturated worlds will evolve to become a mainstream strategy for managing personal and professional time.
‘We will need to take stock and question a society that demands so much emotionally of its citizens,’ explains Helen Morgan, chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council. ‘Our response should be slower methods of inquiry where attention can be given to an inner world that has been neglected through the strains of living in a fast, competitive and highly pressurised external world.’
Slowing the pace of life and media will be key to tackling an overwhelming flow of information.
Tomorrow’s people will embrace a return to a slower form of living and thinking as an antidote to the frenetic pace of today’s existence, and as a way of gaining time to push back against the menacing rise of post-truth culture.
A fresh appreciation of the rewards of delayed gratification will enable millions to step away from both the promises – and dangers – inherent in the on-demand culture of the internet.
Leading cultural thinkers are re-examining the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test carried out at the university in the late 1960s.
In the iconic sociology study, a group of young children were left in a room alone with a marshmallow and told that they could have another one if they delayed eating the first one for 15 minutes.
The researchers monitored the participants’ lives over the following decades and found that the children who had resisted eating the first marshmallow were more successful in later life, achieved higher grades and worked in better paid jobs. As UBS writes, the positive effects of delaying gratification can also be applied to modern economies.
: Meditative Media
It is becoming clear that developing strategies to resist swallowing the instant gratification enabled by the internet could have similar far-reaching implications for society, and the media may be where they first appear.
The marshmallow lure of fast and fake news played a major role in both Brexit and the US presidential election of 2016, and seems certain to survive in the wild reaches of cyberspace.
But moves are afoot to identify and potentially control its spread in the mainstream media in the US, UK and Europe by slowing down the manic 24/7 news cycle and taking the time to fact-check claims by organisations, think tanks and politicians.
The BBC is launching a dedicated lie-debunking unit in its global newsroom to pick apart unverified stories and create in-depth articles about facts as part of a new ‘slow news’ strategy.
From Twitter users to more traditional news outlets, the emphasis has shifted from truth to rapidity.
Journalists Marcus Webb and Rob Orchard set up Delayed Gratification, a ‘slow journalism’ magazine, as part of a movement to counter this shift by taking the long view on news stories and delivering insights that are only available after time has passed.
‘There is no going back – fast media is here to stay,’ says Webb. ‘But I think everyone needs to make time to take stock – to try and understand the story behind the latest shocking headline you’ve just responded to with an emoticon. Hopefully there are enough people out there who feel the same.’
Webb believes that media outlets are reacting to a public demand for Slow Living that is spreading across sectors and industries.
‘For decades, demands for cheaper and cheaper lager led to mass manufacturing,’ he says. ‘Then craft beer emerged and mainstream brewers started adopting a craft approach. There is now a mix of different types of beer. I think the same thing can happen with slow journalism. But it starts with people demanding that we take more time.’
Humanity is facing up to the challenges and learning to reap the opportunities of the two-speed existence that has swiftly engulfed our society and remade our relationship with time over the past three decades of startling technological, economic and cultural change.
‘It is absolutely clear that a supernova of change is making individuals, businesses, machines and ideas more powerful and more able to reshape our world with less effort than ever before,’ explains Friedman.
The Future Laboratory believes that our understanding of the time available to us to affect change – one of the basic components of what makes us human – has been vastly altered by this supernova.
Over the course of 2017 – a year that promises to be one of tumultuous change – we will use our powerful Unlimited collaboration with our media partners Vice and Vanity Fair to explore what this new engagement with time will mean for a future of optimised ethics, living legacies and ageless ageing in this brave new digital world.