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Monday, October 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Saving time no longer a tech reality


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Has technology become a time bandit?

With "Take Back Your Time Day" approaching, organizers are pointing an accusatory finger at technologies whose aim originally was, at least in part, to save time. As technologies have evolved, however, they've either been subverted or become so complex as to defeat their initial promise.

Friday is the statistical day when Americans will have worked as much as their European counterparts will all year long, counting vacations, holidays and shorter workdays. Organizers are using the occasion to emphasize how much longer Americans work, and how much less time that leaves for friends, family and their own well-being.

Part of the workday involves dealing with technology. That's where the concept of time thievery comes in. Bandits include computers, voice mail, e-mail, the Internet and automated processes where humans have been supplanted by technology.

I thought of time thievery the other day at the supermarket, where shoppers can now check out, pay for and bag their own groceries. You stand at a kiosk and pass your bar-coded groceries through scanners, which somehow also recognize fruit and other noncoded items.

If I were in a hurry, self-checkout might be a way to avoid standing in line. The kiosks were fairly empty, although it was impossible to tell whether that's because people don't like them or are still unfamiliar with how they work.

But one of the things I like about grocery shopping is running into people I know or starting a conversation with other folks in line. Once someone noticed I was wearing a hemp T-shirt, which triggered a lively discussion about globalization, marijuana regulation and other issues where even the checker and bag boy chimed in.

Self-checkout deprives me of that human contact. And if supermarkets start requiring all shoppers to do self-checkout — the way service stations that once washed windshields for you now force you to do it yourself — I won't even be saving myself any time. There will be lines at the kiosks just as there are today at the checkout stands.

Plenty of other examples abound. Consider the personal computer. I can remember when I began using PCs back in the early 1980s. They saved me enormous amounts of time rewriting, editing and printing. And e-mail was a wondrous advance over the drudgery of appropriately named snail mail.

Fast-forward to today's perception of PCs. Perhaps 2003's most notorious time bandits are the twin evils of spam and Windows viruses. If one isn't clogging our inbox, the other is crashing our PC.

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If any single technology is the Baby Face Nelson of time robbers, it's automated answering, says Jerome Segal, who writes about time thievery in a chapter of the new book, "Take Back Your Time," edited by Seattle's John de Graaf. The time spent punching buttons through endless queues is not only wasteful but demeaning. Think of how much time could be saved by going back to an old-fashioned human being.

Corporations argue that voice mail saves them money. And in truth, the first voice-mail systems did save time over phone tag. But the total cost of automated answering today in productivity, spread over society as a whole, may well outweigh bottom-line savings.

E-mail is another time sink, of course. Recently I've run into a handful of people who say they have given up e-mail altogether. That seems like a radical step. But my wife has stopped using e-mail on the Sabbath, and some friends have told me they're setting up e-mail "hours," the way doctors and dentists have office hours.

To be sure, technology itself is not the culprit — technology is just a tool. But in many ways, it's become a tool the user can no longer control. Perhaps in addition to "Take Back Your Time," there should be a "Take Back Our Tech" day to remind us of technology's original benefits and to strategize overcoming its abuses.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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