Monday, August 4, 2014

Time Metaphors

It seems only fitting here on Blog Time Passing that I take up the concept of time, at least from time to time. And time being an abstract and intangible phenomenon, we tend to relate to it through more concrete and familiar metaphors. And one of the most common, at least in western cultures, is the metaphor, time is money.

There is a significant discussion of this metaphor in the important book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, which was required reading back in the good old days in Neil Postman's media ecology doctoral program.

I added for good measure Ray Gozzi's masterful meditation on the media ecology of metaphor, The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media, one of the first books to be published in the media ecology book series I edited for Hampton Press. That series is no longer active, since Hampton no longer accepts new books for publication, but the future of media ecology book publishing is a topic for another post.

Getting back to the time is money metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson note that it, like many of our most important metaphors, is so deeply embedded in our language that we no longer recognize it as a metaphor. The fact that the metaphor is imperceptible is what gives it such enormous power over the way that we experience reality, or at least that portion of reality that the metaphor covers. In this case, that's time.

For example, without thinking much about it, we say that we can spend time, save time, lend time, spare time (brother, can you spare a time?), borrow time, invest time, budget time, and spend your time profitably, not to mention ask if it's worth your while or how much time will it cost you? More generally, you can give time, take time, waste time, use time, lose time, put aside time, run out of time, have time, have enough time, have time left, etc.

Lakoff and Johnson note that there are two basic metaphors that underline time is money: that time is a valuable commodity and that time is a limited resource. To this, I would add that there is a more basic metaphor at the root of this, that time is a thing, rather than, say, a process or event. 

This brings to mind Alfred Korzybski's critique against treating concepts as things, one of the key elements informing his discipline of general semantics. It also brings to mind Benjamin Lee Whorf's investigations into linguistic relativism, and his observation that while western languages are noun-oriented, which goes along with treating phenomena as things, Hopi and Navajo languages are verb-oriented, therefore providing a worldview in which phenomena tend to be experienced as events rather than than objects. Whorf makes the point that this view is more consistent with our understanding of reality following Einstein's paradigm shift in physics than is the western worldview. Of course, our mistaken view of reality has led us to try to capture and control reality, which is the basis of our science and technology.

Viewing time as a thing in turn leads to the idea that time can be measured, and this begins with calendars, a point that Harold Innis makes in passing in his discussion of the development of ancient civilizations. But what cements the notion of time as a quantity is the invention of the mechanical clock in 13th century Europe, which also sets us on a course towards increasing mechanization in general, leading to the printing press with movable type, and eventually the industrial revolution, as Lewis Mumford makes clear.

So, we can see the trajectory of western civilization has driven us towards the objectification of time, experiencing time as an object that can be measured, captured, and manipulated. And this leads to a very nervous, almost frantic relationship with time, as opposed to more traditional understandings, which include the sense that it will happen in time, in its own good time, a nicely environmental, dare I say media ecological metaphor, not to mention the realization that all things must pass, that to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven as Ecclesiastes states, and Henry David Thoreau's lovely quote, time is but the stream I go a'fishing in.

So it comes as no surprise that a couple of years ago two University of Toronto scholars concluded that the time is money metaphor is not the key to living a more satisfying life. In a news brief entitled, Time=Money=Less Happiness, Rotman study finds, subtitled "Putting a monetary value on your time isn't the route to happiness," we are informed of the following conclusion:

A new study shows people who put a price on their time are more likely to feel impatient when they're not using it to earn money. And that hurts their ability to derive happiness during leisure activities.

Treating time as money can actually undermine your well-being," said Sanford DeVoe, one of two researchers at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management who carried out the study.

Now, it is significant that this comes from a management school, aka a business school. Much of what management is about is making money. More importantly, the study of management may be said to begin with Frederick Winslow Taylor, and the development of scientific management in the late 19th century. Scientific management is all about the quantification of time in the pursuit of ever greater efficiencies. Indeed, scientific management is the beginning of what came to be known as efficiency experts. No wonder that Neil Postman identified Taylor and Taylorism as the turning point in transforming American culture from a technocracy to a technopoly. This of course builds on Jacques Ellul's pioneering analysis of technique in modern societies.

Not that the contemporary field of management studies is all about scientific management and efficiency, as there has come to be increasing emphasis on human relations, systems approaches to organizations, leadership, and much more, a good deal of it pioneered by Peter Drucker, who is considered the true founder of management scholarship, and a media ecologist to boot!

Anyway, here's a little more from the University of Toronto press release:

Professor DeVoe and PhD student Julian House based their conclusions on three experiments. In each, a sub-group of participants was primed, through survey questions, to think about their time in terms of money. This group subsequently showed greater impatience and lower satisfaction during leisure activities introduced during the experiments. However, they also reported more enjoyment and less impatience when they were paid during one of those activities, which was listening to music.

The experiments' results demonstrate that thinking about time in terms of money "changes the way you actually experience time," said DeVoe. "Two people may experience the same thing, over the same amount of time, yet react to it very differently."

With growth over the last several decades in jobs paid by the hour, it's important for people to be "mindful," of the impact this can have on their leisure enjoyment, he says, and allow themselves "to really smell the roses."

I can't argue with their conclusions. I can only wonder if the study was the best use of their own time? Or was it just another example of behavioral science research yielding trivial results that simply confirm what we already know? Feel free to let me know what you think, that is, if you have the time...

1 comment:

Martin Friedman said...

'Time races on, but oh, much too quickly,' in order to earn enough money to enjoy one's free time.

Interesting piece.