I wanted to go out and make photographs. Instead, I turned off my alarm and just lay on my back, looking at the ceiling, as if constant staring could turn it into a big blue vista. I kept thinking about a dubious milestone: 90 days in…whatever you want to label it: self-isolation, lockdown, quarantine.
The irony of our “new now” isn’t lost on me. While our attention is getting fractionalized (even atomized), the past 90 days have been a big, gelatinous blob. I desperately want not to think about how it was winter when I started to isolate, and now the summer is gently knocking on the window of my tiny apartment. It used to be 55 degrees during the day. Today, it is already in the mid-60s before 7 am.
Will the pandemic finally break us free from the traditional idea of time and all its trappings? Whether it is our workday or how we perceive seasons, everything has a commercial and industrial cadence. If “work from home” is part of the new professional reality, then it impacts how we structure our hours and our lives. Since we don’t know how to do that yet, many of us feel either tired, depressed, sad, lost, angry, or all of the above.
The idea of fungible time as an axis of work, life, and commerce is something that is enabled by the network and connectivity.
This isn’t the first time you might have heard me question the changing nature of time. In one of my earlier pieces, I pointed out:
Lewis Mumford, a New York City-based historian once argued that “clock, not the steam engine or the printing press as the ‘key machine of an industrial modern age.’” The idea of minutes and seconds has defined the workplace and so much of our society.
A key driver of new technologies – telegraph, telephone, television, the Internet is the notion of a faster time. Today, we live in a world that is so insanely fast, that to think of the time in hours and minutes seems like such a quaint idea. I wear a time only analog watch to actually feel a sense of time, even though my iPhone calendar keeps me moving through the day.
Time, in post-Internet society, is now all about fractionalized attention. The idea of work is not defined by 9-to-5 anymore. And as such time as we have known through the Industrial Age has lost its purpose. For example, as gig economies become more pervasive, the idea of what constitutes a “job” is becoming more fluid. You don’t have shifts, instead, you have notifications you swipe on to determine if you are going to take a rider somewhere or not. The farms, factories, and offices are being replaced by a new notion of a workspace. We don’t know what it is — and with robotics and automation, what it will be in the future. It won’t be what it was — that is for certain.
The rise in communication options has turned what was confined by four walls into something more porous and fluid. And perhaps that is why I argue, that we need to think of time differently.
Ironically, the ones who are thinking differently are not the leaders of the technology revolution, but rather are those on the cultural tip. Arbiters of our culture are starting to see that, in the post-Internet, hyperconnected now, the old sense of time is going the way of the pocket watch. Fashion designers are coming to realize that living inside as much as we will likely be doing makes for a season-less reality. And none other than the high-priest of the now and pop-culture kitsch, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele has said as much.
Given that Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok define and accelerate fashion trends, the real world is less interesting. The short-duration drops of small collections with limited availability that have been part of the sneakerhead culture and key to the success of Supreme (on one end) and Outlier.nyc (on the other) are likely to become a norm.
They have glommed on to our need for adaptable reality!
I was recently chatting with Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of Alinea (a Top 50 restaurant based in Chicago) and the CEO of the reservation service Tock, about the crisis facing the food and service industry. Nick is a former derivatives trader, and he knows that there is time-value to things. Just as a bond’s maturity helps determine the interest you get on it, and thus determine its value in the open market, why can’t a restaurant seat, or a delivery service be priced accordingly? A restaurant seat is more in demand between 6.30 pm to 9 pm, but unless you are in Spain, not so much at 11 pm.
I know! I know! You are all screaming, “Don’t you remember, Uber surge pricing?!” I was one of the complainers. Yes, but I also remember when mainstream media screamed at the idea of native advertising. I also remember the time when The New York Times complained loudly about the ad-targeting capabilities of big tech platforms. Where do they stand now? Well, they are building their own platform for ad-targeting.
Times change, and so do strategies — especially when it comes to self-interests and new realities. Nevertheless, the fact that convenience costs money is something that we will have to confront. It can also come with discounts, much like airline seats at the last minute or emergency hotel rooms.
This new adaptive and adaptable reality is going to be the next big transition. We will need software systems, tools, and — most importantly — a mindset that thinks along the vector of time. (FWIW: I have made a few investments on behalf of True on the next-generation software and data layer technologies, and I am always interested in meeting like-minded people, especially entrepreneurs.)
Time has been part of my framework of life. As I lay there thinking about the past three months and looking into the future, I found myself returning to a lesson from the aftermath of my heart attack: learn from the past, anticipate tomorrow, but embrace the now. It took a pandemic to reinforce those lessons from a dozen years ago. Increasingly, we will all focus not on what was or what will be. All of the emphasis will be on whatever is the new now. If anything, that is a lesson of this solitude.
May 27, 2020, San Francisco