Thursday, 27 March 2008

The spontaneous society

In school they teach you that one of the drivers of economic progress over the centuries has been society's increasingly accurate management of time. The seasons had to be tracked so that farming cultures would know when to plant. Once people started sailing across the oceans, they needed reasonably accurate chronometers to measure longitude. When railroads were built, the idea of uniform time zones became important so that the trains could keep predictable timetables. The term "railroad time" is still sometimes used to mean keeping an accurate schedule.

By the time I was growing up, it was universally accepted that rigorous scheduling was one of the hallmarks of an advanced economy. We scheduled everything well in advance -- classes in school, meetings at work, even social events like parties and dates. How many movies and television shows have you seen where a character says, "pick you up at eight"? And don't be late.

A lack of rigorous time discipline, we were told, was one of the factors holding back economic growth in the developing world. That belief was so well accepted in the US that I don't think anyone even debated it.

So it's very interesting to see what electronic communication -- on PCs, but especially on mobiles -- is doing to time management in the world's most advanced economies. Where my generation pre-arranged its social calendar, I watch my kids make it up on the fly. They'll decide on IM that they all want to get together in an hour, or they'll agree via SMS that they're all going to hang out downtown that evening, where they then call or text each other to link up on the fly.

I have seen this developing for years, but I didn't have a gut feel for its power until earlier this year, when I took my family to Disneyland. Touring the Magic Kingdom with two kids was once an exercise in controlled paranoia. The place is so complicated and crowded that you lived in constant fear of losing one or more members of the family. If you did, it might take hours, and a long trip to the lost child center, to find them again.

Anytime we separated -- mom going with one child to one ride, and dad with another child to a different one -- we had to carefully agree on when and where we would meet up. Inevitably someone would be 15 or 20 minutes late, and you'd spend the whole time worrying that the vacation might fall apart.

It wasn't the walking that wore you out at Disneyland, it was the fear.

But the last time we went was the first time when everyone in the family was old enough to have a mobile phone. Suddenly, as we walked through the park on one of the busiest days of the year, we realized that we didn't have to worry any more. If a child got lost, they could call us. If two people wanted to go off in a different direction, that was no problem at all; we could just use the phone to find each other later.

In other words, we could stay together without staying in sight of each other.

That may not sound like a big difference, but it completely transformed the Disneyland experience. The food was still overpriced, and the lines way too long, but the whole thing was much less stressful. It was almost, dare I say it, relaxing.

It made me realize that a similar transition is happening throughout our society. Ubiquitous personal communication makes it much less important to rigorously schedule many elements of your day; you can just make it up as you go along.

As smartphones arose, we thought they were going to absorb the calendaring function of the PDA. They have somewhat, but I think mobile phones are also making the personal calendar less important.

The first time I went with Palm to China, our employees in Beijing cautioned me that I shouldn't talk about the great calendaring built into Palm handhelds, because people in China just didn't care about it. They didn't schedule meetings, I was told. If they wanted to talk to you, they would just give you a call. At the time I assumed that was just a transitional thing, that over time as their economy grew they would learn to do more and more scheduling. But now I'm starting to think that maybe they were ahead of the rest of us all along.

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