the chief virtues of money is that you can use it to buy time to do what
you want. But if you are forced to break your precious spare time into
relatively small chunks -- waiting for the bus, a few evening hours after a hard
day's work, two-day weekends -- it's hard to do big projects or have great
adventures that unfold over weeks or months. It's spare time, but it's garbage
time. Garbage, after all, is mostly perfectly good stuff, just broken and mixed
with other perfectly good stuff so it can no longer be readily put to use.
We academics have long summer vacations and even longer
sabbaticals -- glorious big chunks of green time in which to write books, spend
months on end studying various phenomena, or just see the world or build a
boat. We don't just enjoy recreation; we re-create ourselves.
What would it take to create a system of allocating work
that maximized green time for everyone? In the developed world, most people are trapped in a work schedule that turns much of
their spare time into garbage time ("prime time" for television, but not good
for much else). Weekends are great, but many would love to work eight 10-hour
days in a row and then have six full days off -- or work every day for a month and
then have a month off. Of course if your friends are all working 9 to 5, you
probably find it more attractive to stay in lockstep with them. Like miles and
inches or the QWERTY keyboard, a
less-than-ideal system can persist because tradition is too deeply ingrained to
be changed without a painful revolution.
The developing world, in contrast, is not yet cemented
into such a rigid work life, and so would be an ideal environment in which to
explore more flexible schedules. In much the way one-size-fits-all mass
production is being replaced in many industries with made-to-order
manufacturing thanks to computer-aided control systems, information technology
can probably be harnessed to create "just-in-time" work scheduling that
maximizes green time for almost everybody. The more green time at your
disposal, the more varied your desires beyond the bare necessities of life.
Priming the economic pump with extra usable leisure, with no loss of
productivity, could boost economic growth and create many wonderful things.
Factory owners in the developing world occasionally
encounter the supposed paradox of "target workers" (not to be confused with
Target workers): If you pay them $2 an hour, they will work for 200 hours until
they get enough money to buy the coveted motorbike-and then quit. If you pay
them $4 an hour, they will work only 100 hours before quitting, having reached
their target sum sooner. How do you run a factory where the more you pay them
the less they work? Instead of trying to turn them into Western-style wage
slaves, let their preferences shape their schedules, with a fluid marketplace
of skilled and unskilled workers selling their time to those who provide the
There is wisdom in these workers' refusal to obey the
"laws" of wages, and if that wisdom could be harnessed, target workers wouldn't
have to quit their jobs; they could take "sabbaticals" that fit their dreams
and goals. In much the same way cell phones have permitted those same countries
to leap over the costly infrastructure of land lines, perhaps technology can
also spare the developing world the regimentation of work that turns so much
human time into garbage time.
The developing world is full of smart, innovative people
who, given time and opportunity, can amaze us -- people like William Kamkwamba, the
Malawian who as a 14-year-old boy designed and built his own electric windmills
from scratch. When everyone -- not just those of us in the ivory tower -- can use
green time better, the energies unleashed will astound the world.