This fascinating isochrone map—how many days it took to get anywhere in the world from London in 1914—at first blush evokes the cliché that the world has now shrunk. Obviously it hasn’t shrunk. While the distance between London and New Delhi is still 4,168 miles, what has shrunk is time, and this has had profound aftermaths on our lives.
One of the great ironies in the remarkable proliferation of time-saving inventions is they haven’t made life simple enough to give us more time and leisure. By leisure, I don’t mean a virtue of some kind of inertia, but a deliberate organization based on a definite view of the meaning and purpose of life. In the urban world, the workweek hasn’t shortened. We still don’t have large swaths of time to really enjoy the good life with our families and friends.
In 1956, Sir Charles Darwin, grandson of the great Charles Darwin, wrote an interesting essay on the forthcoming Age of Leisure in the magazine New Scientist in which he argued: “The technologists, working for fifty hours a week, will be making inventions so the rest of the world need only work twenty-five hours a week. […] Is the majority of mankind really able to face the choice of leisure enjoyments, or will it not be necessary to provide adults with something like the compulsory games of the schoolboy?”
He is wrong in the first part. The world may have shrunk but cities have magnified. Travel technologies have incentivized us to live farther away and simply travel longer distances to work and attract anxiety attacks during peak hour traffic [Google Marchetti’s constant]. So, rather than being bored to death, our actual challenge is to avoid psychotic breakdowns, heart attacks, and strokes resulting from being accelerated to death.
Nonetheless, Sir Charles Darwin is accurate about “compulsory games” for adults. What else are social media platforms, compulsive eating, selfies, texts, Netflix bingeing, and 24/7 news media that dominate our lives? They are the real opiates of the masses. We have been so conditioned to search for happiness in these anodyne pastimes that defying these urges appears to be a denial of life itself. It is not surprising that we can no longer confidently tell the difference between passing pleasure and abiding joy. Lockdown or no lockdown, we are all unwittingly participating in these compulsory games with unwritten rules, believing that we are now that much closer to the good life of leisure. But are we?
‘Time is the wealth of change, but the clock in its parody makes it mere change and no wealth.’— Rabindranath Tagore