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Ain’t Wasting Time No More

The Edge question for 2013 is “What Should We Be Worried About?” Nick Carr is worried about time. Please read it all, but one point especially caught my attention:

I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a second or two longer—waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a web page—seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds.

Research on web users makes it clear that this is a general phenomenon. Back in 2006, a famous study of online retailing found that a large percentage of online shoppers would abandon a retailing site if its pages took four seconds or longer to load. In the years since then, the so-called Four Second Rule has been repealed and replaced by the Quarter of a Second Rule. Studies by companies like Google and Microsoft now find that it takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. “Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” a top Microsoft engineer said in 2012. To put that into perspective, it takes about the same amount of time for you to blink an eye.

A recent study of online video viewing provides more evidence of how advances in media and networking technology reduce the patience of human beings. The researchers, Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh Sitaraman, studied a huge database that documented 23 million video views by nearly seven million people. They found that people start abandoning a video in droves after a two-second delay. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has had to wait for a video to begin after clicking the Start button. More interesting is the study’s finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates. Every time a network gets quicker, we become antsier.

This happens to me too, and I want to suggest a reason for it other than mere impatience: after about two seconds I start to think, “Wait, do I really want to watch this?” That is, I realize that I clicked the link thoughtlessly, almost randomly, because it was there, and even the briefest delay in loading is enough to allow me to think the thought I should have had before clicking: This isn’t worth my time.

How many times, I wonder, have I clicked a link to watch a video or an animated GIF and then thought, Well, that’s two minutes of my life I won’t get back? So maybe what I need is a program on my computer that introduces a five-second delay before loading any video or sound file or whatever most tempts me to waste time. Perhaps it could allow me to set varying lengths of delay according to file type. Sort of like Gmail’s Undo Send feature, but for what I watch or listen to rather than what I write.

Of course, one could reply that what I’m asking for is a technological fix for a problem of character: a machine to substitute for the discipline I don’t have. To which I say: Yeah, exactly.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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