The Death of Time

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Internet Archive and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This third episode of Consumed by Technology focused on the rhythms of digital working; it aired on July 23, 1996. Karen Mair was the host.

Farmers live from season to season. Car makers live by the model year. Monks live a lifetime of coming to understand God. Politicians live by their terms. Every sort of work has its own rhythm, and these rhythms can profoundly affect people’s everyday lives.

Show Notes

These are the original links that I released with the episode; each is a link to the Internet Archive’s cache of the site at the time.


INTRO: Farmers live from season to season. Car makers live by the model year. Monks live a lifetime of coming to understand God. Politicians live by their terms. Every sort of work has its own rhythm, and these rhythms can profoundly affect people’s everyday lives.

In another in the series “Consumed by Technology,” Peter Rukavina joins me now to talk about the rhythms of the “digital worker” and what he calls “the death of time.”

QUESTION: What exactly is a “digital worker?”

ANSWER: Well, the easiest answer to that question is that I’m pretty sure that I’m a “digital worker.” Being a digital worker means that the “stuff” of my job is digital information; what I do all day is move it around.

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life — I’ve sold car parts at Canadian Tire; I’ve sorted turtle bones in a museum; I’ve taught 7 year olds how to canoe; I’ve pasted up the sports section a daily newspaper every day.

All of these jobs, in one way or another, have dealt with “real stuff” — car parts, turtles, kids and canoes, newspapers — and they’ve all been the sort of work that gets “finished” at some point — the part gets sold, the bones get sorted, the kids know how to canoe, the newspaper gets printed.

But now that I have a job as a “digital worker,” the days of having “real stuff” to deal with and jobs that have a beginning, a middle and an end seem to be gone.

What I do all day is sit in front of a computer screen moving around bits of digital space: words, graphics, pictures. The different thing about moving around bits of digital information as opposed to, say, moving around bits of turtles, is that digital information is a very “elastic” thing — it’s extremely easy to change — and that elasticity makes for a very different work life than what I’ve been used to.

Think about the difference between typing something on a manual typewriter versus typing it on a word processor. If you get 7 pages into it on a typewriter and decide that you want to add a new paragraph somewhere on page 3, it’s out with the exacto knife and the rubber cement and 15 or 20 minutes of fiddling around. On a word processor, all you need to do is to pop up to page 3, hit insert and start typing.

The simplest way to understand what being a digital worker is like is to take that example — typewriters versus word processors — and extend it to almost all aspects of a work life.

For me, going to work means logging on to the ‘net. The tools I use are text editors and electronic paint programs and modems. And the work I do is like being a construction worker in cyberspace: I arrange bits of information so that people can find them and make sense of them. I don’t move around bales of hay or pizzas, I move around ferry schedules, soil test results and electronic pictures of horses. My job is to maintain a constantly evolving pool of information in good order

QUESTION: That sort of work sounds very familiar… how is being a “digital worker” different from what we do here on the radio every day? We’re both in the “information moving business,” aren’t we?

ANSWER: Well yes, we’re both in the information moving business. The important difference, though, is that come 9 o’clock this morning, today’s “Island Morning” is done; you can’t go back and change something that happened at 7:15, because it’s already out there in people’s radios… it’s done. Making radio — and, for that matter, making television or newspapers, or magazines — is a lot like using a manual typewriter. The rhythm of these media is hourly or daily or weekly or monthly. They start. They end. They’re done.

Working with digital information, though, is a different story. If I take a piece of information, let’s say it’s a map of Charlottetown, and put it on the Internet. In the “old print world,” my job would now be done.

But remember, digital information is very easy to change. Let’s say that in two weeks, a new road gets constructed in East Royalty, or a street downtown gets changed to one-way, or new park gets created. Because the map is on the Internet, because it’s a digital map, I can simply go and make these changes. As soon as I make them, the original map is gone and is replaced by a new, more up-to-date map.

To do the same thing in the “old print world,” would mean printing and distributing a whole new map, something you wouldn’t tend to do very often because of the cost of paper and ink and distribution.

Now this might seem like a pretty simple concept: digital information is easier to change.

But the important thing here is not one example or another, but an entire work day, or work week, or work year, spent working in a world where everything can be changed, updated, redesigned — easily — all the time.

That’s what being a digital worker is like.

QUESTION: Now you call this the “death of time?”

Well, I’ll admit that “the death of time” might be blowing things a little out of proportion, but let me explain why it feels like that’s exactly what it is…

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the job you have, and how time factors into it, can really affect the rest of your life. If you work the night shift, for example, you’re awake when everyone else is asleep. If you’re a teacher, you get a two month vacation in the middle of the summer. If you farm potatoes, there’s not a lot to do in the fields in January. If you host Island Morning, you’ve got to get up before almost everyone else.

Now, as you suggested earlier, time also factors into jobs in another way: every occupation has its own rhythm, or “life cycle” associated with it. This isn’t necessarily a day to day thing that has to do with when you have to get up in the morning, it’s more about the natural cycle of whatever it is you work at.

If you’re a farmer, you plant a crop every season. Spring comes, you plow, fertilize, sow, roll, till, spray… harvest. Winter comes. And then you do it all again. When farmers talk about how things are going in their lives, usually it has something to do with how the crop is going. You’ve had a good year if you’ve had a good crop. You’ve had a bad year if you’ve had a bad crop. The rhythm of the farm is the season.

If you work in a hospital emergency room, each “project” you take on is one case coming in the door. They’re hurt, you treat them, they go away. Total time, anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. Then it’s on to the next patient. The rhythm of the emergency room is the coming and going of the patients.

Again, these rhythms can have a profound affect on how people live their lives, not just in a practical way, but in a way which affects how they feel and think and relate to the rest of the world.

Imagine then what it’s like to work in a job where the work is, quite literally, never done, where the “stuff” that you’re working on is constantly evolving, where everything is in a constant state of flux, where projects start, but never really finish, because they can always be changed, updated, made better, clearer, easier to understand.

The rhythm of this sort of job — the rhythm of “digital work” — is very, very different than the rhythm of any other sort of work. It’s either so long that it’s endless, or so short that it’s invisible.

For all practical purposes, though, it’s as if there’s no rhythm at all.

And in a way, that means that there’s no time at all. Or at the very least it means that how people and work and time all relate is very different from what we’re used to.

So that’s why it call it “the death of time.”

QUESTION: What are the practical implications of this? What have you noticed about your life as a “digital worker?”

ANSWER: One significant thing is that getting satisfaction from my job is difficult, or at least different. It’s not like there’s a pile of something getting smaller as I work, or a last nail to drive in to finish, or a published book to put up on the shelf. I have to get my satisfaction from the process of working rather than from the finished product because, really, the product is never finished.

My day to day work life is different too.

Because there’s no beginning, middle or end to the projects I work on, and because the tasks involved in digital work tend to be shorter rather than longer, I tend to be working on 25 or 30 little things all at the same time. And which 25 or 30 things I’m working on changes from day to day, from hour to hour. I might spend five minutes adding a bit to an Internet page I’m working on here on the Island, 10 minutes fixing up a database on a computer in Boston, another five minutes answering some email and so on, hour after hour. It makes it difficult to go home at 5 o’clock because there’s really no logical place to end the work day… there’s always something else to evolve a little bit before I call it a day, and sometimes I end up evolving until 9 or 10 at night.

QUESTION: So computers have changed our whole idea of what is work time and what is home time?

ANSWER: Well, certainly for me they have, and that too can be something of a challenge. Because digital work can be done from anywhere — including from home — it just makes the dividing line between work and home all that fuzzier.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the challenge of doing digital work in what is still largely an analog world.

It tends to be the places where “old analog” meets “new digital” that are the most challenging. This is true in work — how do you set up electronic hotel reservations at hotels with no computers — but I tend to notice it more in just regular day-to-day life.

I’ve started to notice, for example, that in my personal life, I don’t tend to think ahead very much; it’s hard to shift from a minute-by-minute digital way of thinking to a “where should we go on vacation this fall?” or a “when do you think the broccoli will be up?” way of thinking. It’s hard to move from a digital world where everything is malleable and elastic and easily changed to a concrete “real” world where pipes burst and ceilings fall in and cars run out of gas.

Now I don’t want to make it sound as though I’ve morphed into some sort of digital cyberguy or even as though my life is any different, worse or better than anyone else’s. My mortgage still comes due at the end of every month and I still brush my teeth twice a day.

But I do notice a difference in my life as a digital worker as opposed to my life as, say, a canoe instructor.

And I do think it’s important to look carefully at the long-term social consequences of this transition to an “information economy” — with all the digital workers it will require — that we seem to be in the middle of. In the end, I think the real effects of digital work on society won’t be felt, or at least understood, for 5 or 10 years and it may be too late by then to have any control over them.

QUESTION: In some ways, it sounds like it may be too late now…

ANSWER: It’s very hard to say: the changes we’re talking about are so small and so subtle, and the nature digital work itself changes so much, that actually putting your finger on something and saying “no, this is something we don’t want to happen” or “hey, isn’t that a nice new thing to have happened” seems almost impossible.

In any case, I certainly know that there are some days that I’d relish another go at the turtle bone pile or the chance to sell someone a muffler for a ‘75 Dodge Dart…

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston, PEI… he’ll be back next week with another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”