The click

Time is shrinking. Rather than metricise it with our currency back in 1966, we have waited to these most recent computer-drenched years to warp and twist it.

All credit to the Swatch mob who have given the timelords at Greenwich a shake-up by designating a standard unit of Internet time. This performs the vital, life-affirming role of coordinating the log-in time for all the people who want to "meet" Meg Ryan in a Net chat room.

No, we need a new unit of time altogether, not just a tinkering with the old. Seconds and minutes are showing themselves to be the outdated, old economy indicators that they are.

I propose a new unit of time, the click.

The problem will be how to measure it. If a second is equivalent to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom (trust me, it is), then how will we define the click? It must reflect our current times, so surely it should be described in computer technology terms. Should it be a fraction of the pathetic battery life of my notebook? Should it be the average period it takes to locate a knowledgeable salesperson in a computer "superstore"? Should it be a measure of the mean wait period in a call centre queue? Or, to keep it suitably short, maybe it's the period of time it takes an annoying mobile phone ring tune to burrow its way into your short-term memory.

Because the concepts of processor speeds and the execution of instructions by machines are now so engrained in our language, maybe the click should be linked to the venerable Heinrich Hertz and his "one cycle per second" measure. But there you go: linked back into the passé unit of the second, which just won't do. (Besides, the fastest PC I've observed of late is my father-in-law's 386 running WordPerfect 5.1-believe me, compared to a Pentium running Windows 2000, it fairly screams.)

The notion of Internet time is on every marketeer's lips and maybe that's where it should stay. The most insightful comment I've read on this phenomenon comes from Roger McNamee, an American tech investor, as quoted in Fortune: "People used ‘Internet time' as justification for lack of discipline. They got looser in their [business] behaviour and got more and more rewarded for it . . . In retrospect, ‘Internet time' will prove to have been a hormonal thing."

This would make the MBA students at the London Business School flush with body-changing juices, because they practice the very art of Internet time. As part of their training, the students are given the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to an audience of venture capitalists - but they've got to be quick.

"It's the idea that you get into an elevator with a venture capitalist on the ground floor," explains one of the students, "and you have the time it takes to get to the 14th floor - about 90 seconds - to sell your idea, otherwise they never talk to you again." One click and they're gone.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to time that technology spawns is the seeming need to create it from nothing. As business processes accelerate, fuelled by technology, they can consume the time we save by that very acceleration. Wealth allows some of us to buy time - we pay someone to shop for us, we hire someone to find us a house, we outsource everything we can afford to - but there are only so many clicks in the day.

I attended a business breakfast not long ago hosted by The Stephenson Partnership, a consulting company of executive coaches. Once used just to correct errant men in suits, coaching is now a form of focused, personalised training for the senior manager. Executive coaches are personal trainers, but rather than working on pecs and lats, they massage the management techniques of their charges, helping them to find that elusive balance between work and personal life. The happy, balanced executive is the performing executive.

At the end of the breakfast meeting, one of the Stephenson Partnership coaches remarked, almost regretfully, that a coach can't be responsible for what these execs do with the time they save through improved processes and more effective workplace communication. That time is meant to be spent at home, he remarked, but it often just becomes more time spent at the office.

We merely absorb the time that computers save us.

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World
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