Northern Colorado Business Report
“Technology and the myth of enough free time”
By Kai Staats
22 October 2010

In my parents’ kitchen in Phoenix is a framed, printed advertisement from 1919. In this ad a woman stands next to her daughter who is dressed in her wedding gown. Both are smiling, the bride appearing fully overjoyed at the receipt of her mother’s gift: a Hoosier kitchen cabinet which the ad claims will help “retain your youthful energy and girlish appearance.” The advertisement goes on to state, “[I]n Hoosier homes, daughters know the miles of needless steps and hours of wasted time that this scientific kitchen helper saves. They honor it for the service it has rendered the “little Mother” who has been able to give more freely of her time to a happy comradeship with her children.”

The Hoosier was brought to market before cabinets, counter tops, sinks, even indoor plumbing were a part of every kitchen. It offered a flour sifter, a copper or tin clad work surface, drawers, shelves, and ready storage for just about everything a woman would need as she prepared a meal for the family.

The Hoosier was just one of many advances of modern automation in medicine, machines, and time saving devices. We now have blenders to mix food faster than we are able by hand; toaster, convection, and microwave ovens to heat our food without need to gather wood; refrigerators to keep us from preparing food every day; forced air controlled by automated thermostats to warm us without fire; washing machines to keep us from thrashing our clothes over rocks in the river, and rapid transportation which moves us in a few hours over distances which would otherwise require days, even months under our own locomotion.

We fill our kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages with time saving devices. We collect them and pile them high. We fix them, upgrade them, trade them in, hand them down, sell them at yard sales and in the end we bury them in mass appliance graves. We even purchase larger homes in order to accommodate our growing number of appliances. Yet, we remain without the desired, often promised free time.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond and his contemporaries surmise through archaeological remains and studies of modern nomads that our ancestors of some eleven to fifty thousand years ago enjoyed far more free time than we do today. It is believed those humans who hunted and gathered spent no more than a few hours a day, a few days a week working to provide for themselves.

The Vietnamese poet and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Being Peace, “We are so busy we hardly have time to look at the people we love, even in our own household, and to look at ourselves. Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves. We have millions of ways to lose this precious time …”

As an avid traveler and adventurer who spends a good bit of time away from modern technology, I have often found in the past that the transition from a complex schedule to one of relative simplicity was neither smooth nor easy.

In fact, it was often more comfortable to slip back into the chaotic grind than to transition out, for my body and brain were wired for constant stimuli. When those stimuli were removed, the resulting anxiety was vivid, tangible, even scary. I often required a concerted, conscious effort to let go, to be free in the moment without concern for the location of my mobile phone or content of an anticipated email.

Every day I witness people emerging from an airplane, theater, classroom, even a river trip, and instantly checking their messages with the fervor of someone who has but a few breaths remaining in this world.

With faster, shorter bursts of communication through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we are literally reprogramming our species for a new kind of interaction with ourselves and with the machines that we employ.

In retrospect, I grew up as a highly focused child and teenager who spent countless, uninterrupted hours on a single project. I often forgot to eat or sleep until the project was complete. My mother would deliver dinner to my father’s workshop where I took up residence for the better part of a weekend when in school, or a full week in the summer months where I built robot arms, furniture, and toys.

As an adult who now struggles to focus long enough to complete a complex task in one sitting, I pay close attention to the intricate nature of our relationship with technology. In writing what you are now reading, I have admittedly stopped to check email and text messages a dozen times, my mind literally pulling my attention to another task or event, my train of thought derailed for the moment. I take a breath, allow myself the satisfaction of multitasking, and return fresh and focused for another round. I cannot help but wonder if Stephen Hawking is correct in “The Universe in a Nutshell” when he states (and I paraphrase) “we are not ready for the tools and technology we have created.”

If we readily embrace constant interruption under the glorified banner of multitasking such that we cannot enjoy a sunset or moonrise, a walk or a bike ride, then it becomes evident to me that the prospect of free time remains a myth for no other reason than our modern fear of being at rest. I do not speak of sitting still, but truly isolating our minds and bodies from the onslaught of stimuli in order to enjoy a direct conversation with another human … or nothing more than the exploration of what we carry in our head.

In this past year, I have paid careful attention to me time, down time, and free time. While I have never owned a television, I now make time to bake bread, make hummus from raw ingredients, and to read every night. In so doing, I have found more free time and enjoy what I eat, read, and experience even more. This is somehow contrary to what we believe about automation and mechanized assistance, but it seems that free time is something we must give ourselves when we have so many options to fill our every waking minute. Free time is a choice, the effect of saying no to the craving of more.

It seems free time comes not through better, faster, and more, but through simpler, slower, and less.


With the closing of this, my first column for NCBR in a half dozen years, I offer the first of many conversations around how we interact with the technology we create. Please know that with each column, I will be sharing with you some of my free time.