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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 8, 2014 at 8:00 PM

‘There in 5 minutes!’ Why tech makes it easier to be late

(Flickr photo by JAK SIE MASZ)

(Flickr photo by JAK SIE MASZ, creative commons)

It’s obvious by now, isn’t it? Technology is making it easier than ever to be late.

“Running 5 minutes behind,” goes one text I get — or write — constantly. “On my way!” reads another. We get there, we start our meeting with a rant about traffic on Interstate 5 or parking in South Lake Union, and unless one of us is 15 minutes late or more, it’s usually not that big a deal.

Whoever was waiting was getting stuff done on a smartphone anyway.

If you prize on-the-dot punctuality, or you subscribe to that old saying: “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late,” then none of this can sound any good. People who can’t be on time have a problem, and if technology helps them make excuses, then technology is making their problem worse.

You’re not wrong. People who are chronically late have crazy thoughts that “Almost there!” texts won’t fix. We think the outfit we’ve worn all day looks terrible, or that this is a perfect time to clean our desk, or that it takes 15 minutes to get downtown because of that one time it took 15 minutes to get downtown, or that leaving even one second before we absolutely have to means we’re horrible, unproductive people.

But set aside the odd toxic mindset: What if something bigger is going on here? What if time itself is changing, and not getting where we’re going by a precise moment isn’t just more OK, but actually better?

Consider the ideas of Adam Frank.

Frank, who happens to be in Seattle this weekend for research, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York, a founder of NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog and the author of “About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.”


The first thing Frank told me is that time is and has always been a social agreement based on what technology allows. Until Jost Burgi invented the minute hand in 1577, punctuality was impossible. The industrial revolution brought about a punch-clock universe where things worked best if everyone showed up to work at 8 a.m., went home at 5 p.m. and tuned in to the same evening news show.

With portable connected machines we can fudge the rules a little. We can work on the bus, send an email after dinner, check the news whenever we damn well please and, yes, tell people we’re on our way.

The punch-clock universe is giving way to something else, Frank said. Something more flexible, more decentralized and more liberating.

He can’t say what it is yet — “We’re still inventing it,” he said — but he knows the result: “We are no longer slaves to the clock.”

It’s a fun thought that makes sense, particularly when I consider how much more often I make plans without really making plans at all.

“Coffee Saturday?” “Sure. I’ll text you!”

But tardiness is not just about time, or tech. It’s about people. Once you set an appointment and agree on a time, you’re past this cosmic abstraction. Are you going to work to meet your obligation to this person, or fudge the rules to the very end?

We have so many tools to keep the guilt low and the payoff high. Pre-written “running late” texts that come standard on many smartphones. Maps apps that send your real-time, updated location to waitees so knowing when you’re arriving becomes their work, not yours.

Meeting someone you barely know? More and more people include their phone numbers in appointment emails, “in case anything comes up.”

In the middle of a busy day — and what day isn’t? — that starts to sound like an invitation.

When I asked friends on Facebook to sound off on the idea that being late was more acceptable in the age of smartphones, Rob Stevens made an interesting point:

“You’re either the person who values other people’s time over your own, or you’re the opposite. Tech just makes those choices more readily apparent,” he wrote.

“For example, I am habitually early,” he continued. “Technology makes it easier for me to get someplace early, because I can catch up on email or get work done while I’m waiting. Other people with the exact same technology use it to explain why they are late to something.

“The technology was never the issue in the first place.”

He’s not wrong. Where tardiness is about the promises we make, we say a lot in how well we keep them.

But time itself is a kind of promise. And if technology means its terms are shifting, maybe we’ll all be better off.

Big thanks to everyone who sounded off on the Facebook thread – and to Hanson Hosein for introducing me to Adam Frank.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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