The Human Scale of Time vs. Time in Automation and Acceleration

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Koyaanisqatsi again, but for the first time on the big screen. (I’ve owned this movie and the rest of the Qatsi series on DVD for decades.) If you’ve never seen it, it’s a 1982 movie with no dialogue about a way of living that is out of scale. For a 38-year-old film, the idea feels stunningly contemporary. I was fortunate enough, thanks to the Museum of the Moving Image, to be able to see it with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio in the audience and then listen to a discussion with him about it. (And to shake his hand afterwards and tell him how magnificent his work is. It’s always a joy to be to connect directly with creators and other significant people in our lives and let them know their work matters to us.)

During the discussion, he shared so many brilliant ideas: that at the premise of the film are the “wonders that are our afflictions;” that we speak technology and we breathe technology; that “what’s happening in the future is rooted in now;” and so much more – I took four pages of notes!

A great deal of the impact of the movie is the sped-up or slowed-down nature of the footage. As Godfrey Reggio said several times during the discussion, “that which is most present is least seen,” so sometimes we have to change the way we see our surroundings to notice them.

This aligns with research and thinking I’ve done around the relative experience of time in our lives, and how we can think about it in terms of the design of experiences both now and as we move into an increasingly automated future.

Human Understanding of Time

After all, even humans have different understandings of time: people who know more than one language have a different perspective on time because we’ve experienced other approaches to temporal framing, other terminology for concepts like “the day before yesterday” or “the year after next.”

People who have experienced the traumatic loss of someone they love have experienced time differently as well; in my own life, I found that dates accrued significance with time and life experience. There’s an additive effect of milestones on calendar dates, so the date a loved one died means something very different to me in the years after it happened than it did before.

Designing the Meaningful Experience of Time

For experience strategists and designers, in order to make a human-centric digital transformation it’s important to think about the practical side of these insights: how does an understanding of time affect your customers, users, visitors, patients, students, residents, and whatever roles humans play in your company, organization, city, museum, etc?
How does it speed up or stand still?
How is it associated with progress or delay?
How is it light and how is it heavy?
Does urgency matter?
What can you do in the design of experience to enhance the appreciation of time relative to the experience of your brand, place, product, etc?

Last August, Greta Thunberg took a slow boat across the ocean to her appearances in New York and beyond rather than accept the carbon footprint of flying. How does time relate to value and to values for the people in your communities?

The Relative Value of Time in Automation and Acceleration

And then, a big question: How might all of this sense of time change with the continued rise of algorithmic optimization and automated efficiency? What will increasingly machine-led experiences do to the human experience and meaning of time? For most of us, automation implies acceleration, and in a sense the devaluing of time. How will we preserve the value of time in an increasingly automated world?

As machines speed up certain tasks, are there likely to be others that we deliberately slow down? We’ve already seen the rise of trends in the past two decades that prize slowness and involvement, like the methodical and very hands-on approach to making pourover coffee, for example.

It seems important that we somehow be able to retain our humanistic, nuanced, compassionate model of the passage of time amidst the acceleration of the world around us.

Which means we’re going to need to do more to understand how our sense of urgency has changed because of faster modes of communication and always-on gadgets with push notifications. We’re going to need to do more to understand how our addition of the human values of nuance, context, judgment, and such will be measured and understood in the context of sped-up workplaces driven by intelligent automation.

There are no fast and easy answers here. But for those of you designing experiences, it may be worth taking a little time to ask some of these questions, so you can design a more nuanced experience with a more humanistic understanding of time.


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me to advise or as a keynote speaker at an event in 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to more meaningful experiences of time for us all. 

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