Lately, as usual, I’ve been getting angry about something small I’ve been noticing online. At the tops of stories, some digital publications have started putting notes, usually right underneath the headline, presumably for the reader’s benefit, that say things like: “4 minute read.”
Last week, I had a little argument with myself—after all, what’s the harm in letting a reader know roughly how long a story is before they sit down to read it? In a bookstore, they can presumably make that calculation themselves, picking up a heavy tome on a topic of only mild interest and weighing it, perhaps deciding that after all it wouldn’t really be worth it. Magazine stories work much the same way; you can flip a few pages ahead and calculate whether, really, this can hold your interest for that stretch of pages. I’m personally fluent in word counts—I’m regularly striving for one, or trimming down to one, or telling another person they need to cut half their story to align with one. I’ve dealt in “inches,” too, at various newspapers, as in column inches, as in, “Can you write me 25 inches on that?” All of these acts of quantifying have seemed relatively reasonable to me, if sometimes maddening.
But measuring in terms of time is a different thing. Time is not, first of all, an objective measurement in the way words or inches or pages are; something that takes me four minutes to read might take you two, or six. It’s not even an objective measurement for a single person: sometimes I skim, and sometimes I read quite slowly. Sometimes I start to read and then I go to make some tea and then I come back and check Twitter and read a few emails and then I start reading again and I read in a very concentrated way until someone rings the doorbell and then I stop and maybe I start again the next day or maybe I don’t. So “4 minute read” is a bad estimate, so bad that the line at the top of the story might as well just say: “not very long but not the shortest it could be.”
I’m not really that angry because these timestamps are bad estimates, though I do think that makes them more annoying. I’m angry because our lives are increasingly meted out in pockets of time, and I want it to stop. I do not want to be told, at the top of what might be a fascinating and heartbreaking story about butterfly migration I didn’t know I wanted to read, that it’s a “25 minute read.” I do not want to begin to make calculations about how that time might be better spent: doing laundry, doing crunches, answering emails, even writing this piece, which I’ve been putting off for about a week, until I began having that squeezing sensation which meant I was almost out of time.
Obsession with manmade time—breaking it into chunks, maximizing the efficiency of each chunk, equating time and value—is nothing new. Keeping time predated clocks: sundials, a stick in the ground for shadows, eventually church bells and public clocks. But time before the mid-eighteenth century was still a pretty rough concept. It was also usually a local one: the sun set wherever you were, and the day was over there; it was not that interesting, really, or at least not that important, that elsewhere the sun might be rising. This all changed during the Industrial Revolution, in part because of advancements in clock technology and in part because factory work and its output required a more precise and standardized understanding of time. Railways had to run on time. People were asked to stick to particular schedules. By the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of “the hour” was the predominate measure of time in much of the world; along with that came the prevalence of the hourly wage.
Hence we have the tyranny of modern time, a phenomenon that has inspired a lot of good thinking and writing over the last two centuries, and continues on just as it always has, dominating our lived lives.
But there is also another, related thing going on with our time these days. There is an increasing obsession, particularly in the United States, with tracking our own time—not just the hours we are scheduled to be at work, but the hours we spend sleeping and walking and running and eating and using our laptops and yes, reading. Profit-driven notions about efficiency and the value of hours—time is money!—are so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that we apply this logic to the rest of our lives. We scrutinize our hours. We even, bizarrely, use the same technology that sucks up our time to keep track of it. Our phones and apps spit back metrics at us: our iPhone can give us glib “Screen Time” reports, Instagram can give you a gentle reminder about how long you’ve been on the app. We might even purchase new technology, like a sleep tracker, gladly handing over data about ourselves in exchange for…information about our how we passed the time.
Sometimes when I close my eyes I visualize my week ahead in small bands of time, little colored strips that are blocked off with things I need to accomplish in a series of hours. I don’t even use a calendar because I don’t want it to dominate my life, but I keep a to-do list for every day, and it serves the same function (though probably less efficiently). Manmade time makes its way into my subconscious. I am not interested in any more of this, which is why I am not interested in knowing how much time it might take me to finish a story about monarch butterflies. I wish instead, and sometimes this wish is granted, that reading something surprising and good will momentarily—or at least for an hour, or for an unknown unplanned period—make it all stop.