It may be the most heartbreaking half hour ever seen on television. “Time Enough at Last,” a 1959 episode of the legendary anthology series The Twilight Zone, features Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, a thick-glasses-wearing bank teller who loves nothing more than reading, but whose wife, boss, and other circumstances interfere with his ability to read at every turn.
Spoilers ahead: if you don’t know this episode, then drop everything and watch it uninterrupted on Netflix or view it ad-supported on Daily Motion:
Henry hides in the bank vault with his brown bag lunch to read on the sly. That saves his life when an H-bomb obliterates his hometown and, it seems, the rest of civilization. Alone in a blighted world, Henry realizes that he has limitless time to read. He finds an intact library and happily stacks all the books he wants to read in order. Then, just as he sits down to read, Henry’s glasses shatter. He is left blind and despairing.
This 60-year-old television episode is both prescient and quaint. It’s prescient because it anticipates the 2019 imbalance in our relationships with time and information. It’s quaint because if the bomb hit today, leaving a modern-day Bemis stranded with the contents of a library and eager eyes, there would still neverbe enough time to deal with limitless information.
The analog age
With only 24 hours in a day and vexing needs to sleep, eat, and work, we humans have never had enough time to do everything we need and want to do. That’s not new. However, in the pre-digital age the amount of available awake time and the amount of available information were more proportional.
Like now, in the pre-digital age we knew that we only had a few productive hours each day. We also knew that there was more information out there in the world than we could ever master. The difference, however, was that the bulk of the information was out there — in the world but not easily accessible.
Functionally, the information we had to play with was either in our immediate environments, delivered to our environments on somebody else’s schedule (linear TV and radio, newspapers, the mail), or we had to change our environments (that is, go somewhere else, like a library) to get more information.
For everyday decisions, we had both limited time and limited information. If you wanted to buy a pair of shoes, then you’d visit your local shoe stores to see what was available, knowing that there were other shoes out there. But you also understood that you didn’t have enough information or waking hours to get those other shoes.
If your back hurt, you went to your family doctor, knowing that you could go research back pain in a medical school library. But you also knew that you didn’t have access, didn’t know where to start looking, and didn’t have time to figure it out before you passed out from the pain.
If you wanted healthy teeth and fresh breath (and who doesn’t?), then you could learn about the ingredients in each tube of toothpaste or interrogate your dentist. But you’d probably just go with whatever brand had effectively advertised its way into your awareness because you didn’t want to spend time on a decision (Colgate or Crest?) that wasn’t all that important in the first place.
Stores, experts and brands were all substitutes for information because we did not have access to information outside our immediate environments, and we did not have enough time to change our environments for all but the most important decisions.
Then came the internet
Over the course of 20 or so years, information limitations evaporated with the rise of new digital things like email, Wikipedia, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, Google, and Facebook, as well as the digitization of older things like newspapers, magazines, books, music, movies, television and more.
Limited time and limited information flipped, becoming limited time and unlimited information available anywhere you might be and any time you might want it. Environment was no longer a barrier to information.
We’ve never recovered from this flip. On the user side, we have information overload. On the store, expert and brand side, with infinite information there is little need for substitutes, but the former substitutes struggle to find new functions.
Many retail stores are dying because shoppers don’t need stores for product information or availability: they can research and buy online. Doctors (like other experts) now have to convince their patients or clients that they don’t suffer from the malady they read about on the internet. Brands can no longer hide inferior products behind jingles and logos.
New jobs for old substitutes
In a world of infinite information, the ideal new work that stores, experts and brands can do is to function as filters, helping people on the user side to manage and understand information.
Doing so requires a different kind of flip — one of perspective. If retail stores are going to help people find the right products, then that means they need to invest in salespeople, which is hard to do in a gig economy. The win for the store is loyal customers who come back. Doctors need to help their patients understand how to assess online health information instead of simply telling their patients to ignore the internet. The win for the doctor is healthy patients who collaborate in taking care of themselves.
Brands need to stop talking about their products and focus on what their customers need: what job, to paraphrase Clayton Christensen, is the customer hiring the product to do? The win for the brand is positive word of mouth that will attract more customers.
As Ray Kurzweil and others have observed, humans evolved over millions of years of caloric scarcity: we were built to eat as much as we can all the time because in the not-so-distant past calories were hard to come by. Now, in an age of supermarkets and restaurants, people who aren’t desperately poor have to fight not to get fat, flying in the face of evolution.
The good news is that with twentieth century notions of nutrition (e.g., the food pyramids) many people understand how diets affect things like weight and health, even though eating right is hard in the face of myriad tasty temptations.
In the twenty-first century, we need information pyramids and data diets. We need to learn how to constrict the amount of information we consume the way we constrict how much food we eat. As with food diets, as anybody who just made a New Year’s resolution to get back to the gym knows, information diets are very, very difficult to follow.
The upside of doing so is that we might then find ourselves with time enough, at last, to do the things we want to do.