I was on a full plane, and we had already been sitting on the tarmac for ages when the pilot announced that it would be at least 45 minutes before we would get off the ground. You can imagine the collective groan.
But then he said, “You can turn your cell phones on.” The sudden burst of energy was like a bunch of kids just let out of school. The pilot had released us from unbearable confinement: the prison of inactivity. In the following half hour, I’ll bet that more than a hundred phone calls were sent and received. I eavesdropped on the calls closest to me, and it seemed as though most consisted of chatting with family members or friends.
This was a planeload of people who were simultaneously engaged in the exercise of killing time.
In our twenty-first century society, most of us have lives that consist of densely packed activities. We do so many different things in different locations with different people (even when we are just sitting at our computers) that we have created a by-product, innumerable “in-between” spaces of time. They are the gaps that exist between finishing one thing and starting the next: the time between arriving at the doctor’s office and being examined; between descending into the subway station and the train’s arrival; between the barista asking, “What drink may I start for you?” and announcing, “grande non-fat vanilla latte.”
These gaps are typically short and unpredictable in length, empty moments that, for the most part, simply require us to wait.
But we never simply “wait,” do we?
Because we are a hyper-active, hyper-consuming society, we have to be busy, productive and entertained, even during the in-betweens. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so empty spaces must be filled. To answer that need, we have created, and are consumers of, entire new industries for killing time.
There have always been industries that have served short bouts of waiting, even when the primary business is something else. Restaurants, bars and cafes, for example, are for dining and hanging out. But the Starbucks on every corner is also a provider of a little something extra to do--i.e., sipping coffee--while you’re waiting on a subway platform.
What interests me most is how many new ways there are to kill time, brought to us by new technology. The product requirements include speed, portability and the ability to be interrupted at a moment’s notice. They are mini devices for mini activities. Or they need to be imbedded in “smart” places where waiting occurs—airport terminals, bus stops, hotel lobbies—where you can kill time more effectively, enjoyably and knowledgeably.
I travel a lot and much of my waiting takes place at airports. Lately, I have been observing my time-killing habits more closely, taking care to notice how technology industries are providing products and services--intentionally or not—to fill the vacuum.
My mini activities fall roughly into three categories: shopping, entertainment and productivity.
Let’s start with the mother of all mini activities: shopping. The airline terminals are filled with shops, becoming more and more like malls with chain stores for jewelry, clothing and souvenirs. Plus there are stores that supply paraphernalia for your flight, along with books and magazines, you can buy batteries, DVDs, CDs, headphones and other peripherals for your time-killing technology devices.
Or you can go to the Wi-Fi hot spots and continue to shop, but use your computer. When I have miraculously passed quickly through security and now have extra time (to kill), I peruse the books at the airport news stores and, disappointed, I go online to purchase and download a song or a podcast.A crucial goal for a time-killing business is to sell more stuff more quickly. Every time I go to Amazon, there are new, targeted suggestions for additional purchases. Filling out the forms is lightning fast, because almost all of my contact and billing information is stored.
Last year I bought a bracelet at an airport store. The salesperson took forever to ring it up. I muttered to myself, “I could have done this faster online.” But then I realized it didn’t really matter. I never wear bracelets anyway, and I still haven’t worn the one I bought that day. I just bought it because I needed something to do.
In my January/February 2006 column “Everything Else,” I talked about the ways that cell phones are changing. “Your mobile phone will be with you at all times, filled with digital content that is both trivial and vital, from your ‘to do’ list to the details of your identity: e-mail, Internet access and instant messaging; movie information (with directions and options to purchase tickets); music and podcasts; games and television shows; news, weather and stock quotes. These are in addition to the phone’s cameras (still and video), appointment book, address book, music and video players...” All of these features serve as ideal time fillers, especially the last one: video players. Have you heard the phrase “fourth screen”? The mobile telephone is becoming the fourth screen in our everyday lives, the first three being the cinema screen, the tv and the computer.
In this way, mobile phones will be used for video snacking. But do I really want to snack on more junk TV, even to kill a few minutes? This made me think about independent filmmakers, so I Googled the phrase “independent filmmakers on cell phones.” From that cursory search, it’s clear that I will have a lot of new choices for filling three minutes while I wait to board the plane.
Many people are desperate to be productive during waiting periods, and they accomplish a great deal with short spurts of e-mail, text messaging, Web surfing and phone calls.
My most important device for productive mini activities is my noise-cancelling headphones. You might put these in the entertainment category, for enhancing my music-listening. But for me, they are a necessity for my most desperate need, to kill the time on the tarmac. That “in-between” is when I cannot use my laptop or cell phone (the above pilot-hero scenario is unusual) and when babies tend to scream. Couple that with the exasperation of not moving and having no idea when we will. Call me spoiled, but I find it hard to be productive under those circumstances, and a cocoon of clear, calm music helps me to think.
Inevitably, I come to the chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, new technology or our need for it? In other words, is technology developed to address our need to kill time more effectively and enjoyably? Or, do we have this desire because of our addiction to, and the effects of, new technology?
I wrote part of this column during a cross-country flight. I took a break to walk up and down the aisle to check out other people’s killing time technology--DVD players, iPods, computers, Game Boys, headphones--and then I came upon a young woman who was knitting. Knitting! After I passed her seat, I glanced back and saw a tiny dvd player on her tray table, screen glowing. CA
© 2007 W. Richmond
Public Privacy: Wendy Richmond’s Surreptitious Cellphone, an exhibit exploring the impact of new technology on privacy, opens September 7, 2007 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California; (619) 238-7559, www.mopa.org. The show runs through January 6, 2008.