Is The Internet Changing Our Perception Of Time?

The immediacy of the internet makes everything else seem slow in comparison. But don’t worry about the onslaught of information – we’re not supposed to catch everything.

When it comes to email, what constitutes a late reply? An hour, a day? Two days? It’s certainly less than three, as evidenced by the apologies that usually follow any reply that comes after more than 48 hours. Back when we relied on mailed letters to communicate, a response in 48 hours would have been perfectly normal, or even quite quick. So just because technology has made instant communication possible, why do we feel an obligation to change our behaviour?

The internet, and its many options for speedy communication, may well have changed our perception of time. Even dealing with a fax seems unreasonably slow now, not to mention how frustrating it is to have to wait for something to come through in the post. Take GP referrals for example: first you have to wait for the letter with an appointment date, then if you want to change it you have to phone them back. This is the way it’s always been done, but all of a sudden it seems unbearably slow and inefficient.

“Technology makes us impatient for anything that takes more than seconds to achieve,” according to Dr Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and author of ‘The Time Paradox‘.

Technology is pushing more of us into a time zone focused on the immediate moment. That means that we tend to ignore the future consequences of our behaviour. “When we’re chained to our emails or social media, we risk becoming trapped in a cycle of instant gratification,” Zimbardo explained in The Huffington Post. “It’s an intensive form of living in the present, and the future [outlook] is very short-term. It’s about the next hit.”. This focus on the next few hours or days, instead of the next week or month, can become problematic if this outlook starts to hamper with a person’s ability to manage projects that take more time.

Having said that, at work it may well feel like technology has caused time to speed up a little too much. With the constant onslaught of information, it’s becoming impossible to keep up with all the industry news, and also have time to do your own job. An RSS reader is still probably the best option for newshounds keen to never miss a thing, and Feedly has done a great job at replacing the long-gone Google Reader and even older Netvibes. But there are increasingly more signs suggesting this attempt to keep up is a lost cause: the internet is speeding up the flow of information to the point where it’s impossible to catch everything.

For example, Google Alerts isn’t working properly anymore. The service has, in the last few years, gone from doing what it says on the tin – sending you alerts of search phrases – to doing this only sporadically. Google has never officially explained this anomaly, but it seems safe to assume the change is somehow deliberate as it’s not like Google has lost its ability to perform searches.

What’s happening now is that information is increasingly being presented with the assumption that people may not have seen it the first time around. Twitter is the classic example of this: information flows past you like a stream, and you can dip in and out as you please. Is this selection process is good or bad? It depends on who is creating the filter. In the best case scenario we will do the selecting ourselves, or outsource it to trusted sources. As social media is increasingly responsible for sending hits to online news sources, more and more people are choosing to let the people they follow on social media be the ones to whittle down the internet for them.

This may seem a little random, but with a carefully curated feed this can actually be a powerful time-saving tool. And for those hard pressed for time, a curated feed may even better than a runaway RSS reader.