Where Have All the Hours Gone?

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I overheard a faculty member at a university excuse herself from a meeting because she had to return to deliver her barely six-month-old infant to a Soho class in Mozart, presumably guaranteed to lay the neural foundation for a grownup as artistically sensitive and close to occupational perfection as Wolfgang Amadeus himself. The torments of ambition to succeed in an imprecise, unpredictable system still decades in the future are now being applied to helpless children by parents, who evidently cannot conceive of supporting activities without discernible payoff for the precious resume in preparation. So their little bambinos have to suffer something rather like the agonies of graduate school. As they proceed through the hoops of the system they will?if they are what are generally called "good kids"?become engulfed in an ever more demanding array of classes, enrichment programs and pursuits ranging from a cappella singing to delivering snacks to oldsters to mastering Beginning Sanscrit to evaluating changes in Bogart's body movement in his later films.

This is a new kind of Survivor game: Life as Job Application. At least in the old days, such personal perfectionism was linked to the try-outs for The Big Eternal Career in the Sky. Now it is umbilically connected to jobs at Goldman Sachs.

That's for youngsters. Among adults, there are new work tools implanted under the skin, like cellphones and e-mail and systems of instant wireless communication with the entire planet at once. The obvious result is that no one is ever away from anything. Everywhere and nowhere and here and there are the same. Labor-saving devices create work. Because human endeavor is now sustained by the near-perfect independence of electricity from human interference, human activity and especially work are no longer linked to light and heat and cold and time. Everything goes on all the time. The bazaar never closes. The financial papers list stock prices for trades made after trading ends for the day. Surely the 7-Eleven will soon change its name to 24/7. Pagers, answering machines, FedEx, InterFedEx, wireless e-mailers and no doubt other treasures still lurking in Finnish or Japanese labs will make it extremely difficult for people seeking a week or day or hour or minute away from the world. They will have a lot to answer for.

E-mail is a truly remarkable addition to human communication and to the saving of time and the expansion of groups of people able to exchange real information rapidly and without distortion. People who haven't e-mail and therefore obligate those seeking to communicate with them to telephone or write letters must earn the same baffled and irritated response as people who refused telephones when they first hit the streets, so anyone with a message had to write or, if urgent, walk it over. I don't know how I lived without it.

But increasingly I don't know how I can live with it. The volume of material is incredible and only grows. It is very much as if you would have to double the size of your mailbox every month. Except with e-mail you don't provide space, you provide time. While you may be able to buy more space, you can't time.

But why pay attention? A recent case in point is the spiky fuss surrounding the publication of a book by Patrick Tierney, which included the suggestion that two Michigan scientists, James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, were somehow responsible for the spread of measles among the Yanomami Indians of South America. (Alex Cockburn wrote about it for New York Press.) Before the book came out two anthropologists who have been Chagnon's enemies for years wrote an allegedly private letter to the president of the American Anthropological Association saying the publication of the book threatened the reputation of anthropologists and Steps Should be Taken. In the letter, the activities of the folk from Michigan were said to be closer to Josef Mengele than Joseph Conrad.

Well. What juice. The letter was immediately faxed around the world. The New Yorker published an excerpt, and them thin electric wires were humming with endless communiques on the subject from people everywhere and often. The volume of traffic was immense. It was all very interesting. But it was a flagrant waste of time, because anyone who knew anything about the story knew that it would turn out that the book was at best an exaggeration and at worst an inept slander, and that the accusing anthropologists were postmodernist simplifiers hellishly confused by the real facts of human biology, whose charges could not possibly be sustained. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan weighed in with its own magisterial investigation and countered all the charges, and it will be interesting to see who sues whom now, and what the result is.

But without e-mail this would have taken months to wend its way through the various steps. Very few people would have been involved, or would have felt they had a responsibility to keep up with the issue and comment if necessary. Countless human hours would have been spared the perusal of unnecessary documents about a falsely beguiling issue. I'm sure that I myself am responsible for forwarding to people the equivalent of as much copy as in a pre-Christmas issue of the Sunday New York Times. Too much, because it was too easy.

So the ease of communication has increased the pressure for self-editing and sharply threatens peace of mind. Just as the dozens of tv channels increase the pressure, the countless magazines, the voluminous newspapers, the CDs, DVDs, the ads on everything from buses to National Public Radio to movie theaters, the endless polling and cold-calling from people offering trips to Orlando if if if you will only...

From little childhood interrupted by fierce kindergarten to a quiet stroll in a garden interrupted by a cellphone, They are after us. Watch your back. Front. Sides. Top. Bottom.

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