The value of time

The paradox of being fast while stuck in gridlock, and why artificial intelligence can bring people back to humanism: Hans-Christian Boos, artificial intelligence expert, and Karlheinz Geißler, time researcher, discuss the possibility of liberation from scheduling.

Bernd Zerelles (interview) & Robert Fischer (photo)


The Audi Magazine: Mr. Geißler, many people feel that they are frequently rushed in their everyday lives. Why does our approach to time subject people to these types of challenges?

Geißler: It is our lot as living beings to perceive time as a problem because we only live for a certain length of time. This constantly causes us to question whether we are dealing with time in the best way, in a good way. We are permanently encouraged in qualitative but not in quantitative terms to consider the question: Am I using my time constructively or not? Should I cram more into a certain time frame or less? Is that satisfying or not? Are there alternatives or not?


What does quality mean in relation to time?

Geißler: Humans experience time in two ways, and have done so in societies for 600 years: as clock time and as natural time. Natural time is what they themselves perceive and experience as time—the time that makes them happy or unhappy, as the case may be. It is their internal body time, or qualitative time. And it operates in rhythms. Sometimes also as a means of escaping or breaking away from the repetition. Put simply, clock time is used for scheduling people. Machines are scheduled, work and everyday life are scheduled. This is what causes stress.

Boos: It is precisely the qualitative approach to time that offers a great opportunity for artificial intelligence: After all, we spend a large portion of our time dealing with things that don’t help us progress at all. When you consider that people used to spend all day in factories hitting things with a hammer, what goes on in most offices today is no different. We live in a world of work in which we have driven people to function like machines by dividing their work into small segments—following Taylor’s economic principles. People no longer understand the overall outcome of their work.

Geißler: That is the agenda of our industrialized society—the scheduling of people. Does scheduling disenfranchise the individual?

Boos: People perform relatively simple tasks that require cognitive skills and arguably even the ability to concentrate but that are not fulfilling. We produce too many specialists in one field alone. We are losing all of the diversity that we possess as creatures.

Geißler: But Taylorism is finished.

Boos: Even viewed purely in terms of production, it’s over because it is driving people crazy.

Geißler: No, because this notion of “do this first, then that” is also no longer productive. We’re done with scheduling; concurrence is the new productive agenda.

Boos: This constant pressure to be available for productivity …




Hans-Christian Boos, 45
Hans-Christian Boos, 45

Chris Boos is a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. Founded in Germany as far back as 1995, his high-tech company Arago creates software for intelligent automation. Quasi-thinking machines are designed to take on cumbersome tasks, giving people the freedom to invest more in their intellectual development.



Karlheinz Geißler, 72
Karlheinz Geißler, 72

The time researcher is an emeritus professor of business education and has been studying time for thirty years. Throughout that time, he has been living without a watch in sync with his own rhythm. Geißler is co-founder of the German Society for Time Policy (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Zeitpolitik) and heads up the Institute for Time Research (Institut für Zeitforschung) in Munich together with his son Jonas. His latest book is entitled Time is Honey.


I believe humans are designed for something completely different from productivity. Please explain this in more detail.

Boos: The question is: What is mankind’s actual purpose in the overall system? I believe that people are particularly well equipped for two things—two things that also make them very happy. The first is inventing things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an invention that can be patented, an artistic creation or whether it involves someone taking a risk, a pioneering step. And the second is that we are predestined to be there for and somehow interact with one another. That’s precisely what has been lost in today’s industrial societies.


But how is artificial intelligence supposed to help us in this regard?

Boos: I see the same problem time and again: People who perform a “Taylorist” job and augment it further through concurrence or constant availability are cultivating this work-life balance mindset. But this cannot succeed. Most of them don’t work for eight hours a day—they work for ten or twelve hours a day. Then they need some sleep, let’s say for six hours. That means that 18 hours are already gone. But they also have to maintain some sort of life. These people might have another four hours in which to experience all their happiness. That is never going to work.

Geißler: No, the reason it doesn’t function is because work is also life.


Does artificial intelligence liberate people by carrying out tiresome and repetitive tasks for us?

Boos: If machines do the things that are actually too dull for us humans, we can at last occupy ourselves once again with the things that really matter.


Mr. Geißler, you are also quoted as saying in a recent lecture that repetition is something you can dispense with in working life in order to gain time.

Geißler: Time is nothing but a concept. And the concept is that you can account for time in monetary terms. This is precisely what happens in our working lives. Avoiding repetitions and replacing this form with new forms that have faster workflows—that’s the financial rationalization of time.

Boos: One aspect generally overlooked in the debate about artificial intelligence is that it is purely an efficiency tool. And now we are using it to deliver the efficiency that we ourselves are unable or unwilling to achieve in order to keep the economy on track. This dream of artificial intelligence, which the media are only too happy to promulgate—the robot created in a human likeness that expresses itself in the first person—nobody today has a notion how to build such a thing. However, what we do understand very clearly is that machines can help us escape the efficiency spirals in which we find ourselves.

Geißler: Well, if artificial intelligence frees us humans from the impositions of sheer repetition, I can only endorse it.

Boos: Do you not also agree that we squander an inordinate amount of time on things that neither make us happy nor allow us to progress?

Geißler: What do you mean by “squander”? We don’t squander time. Nobody squanders time unless they’re forced to do so, in other words in the sense of being compelled to do something they don’t want to do. Instead, individuals will do whatever somehow satisfies them—otherwise they wouldn’t do it at all.

Boos: All of the skepticism surrounding artificial intelligence is frequently justified by the fear of suddenly having time on your hands and not knowing how to spend it.



Taylorism: At the start of the twentieth century, the American Frederick Winslow Taylor conceptualized the principle of breaking down labor into small segments to increase human productivity.


Berlin, Germany’s capital, is the magnet of our time. A symbol of Berlin’s cosmopolitanism, the internationally renowned World Time Clock has graced Alexanderplatz square in the Mitte district since 1969. Crowned with a model of the solar system, the clock provides a schematic depiction of the world’s 24 time zones.


What do you believe we should do with time—why do we need to gain time?

Boos: For at least the past 40 years, the human race hasn’t achieved anything that has really brought us a major step forward. And that’s coming from me of all people—someone from the field of technology. To anyone who now maintains that we have invented such wonderful things as the Internet or Facebook, I would counter that spreading gossip is really a very ancient human habit. Our achievements in the area of social networks consist solely in having added speed to the process. We are faced with significant difficulties on our planet. We are plundering the planet, ten percent of the world’s population enjoys a reasonable standard of living, but the remaining 90 percent does not. World peace is conspicuous only by its absence. We are forgetting about progress, on a purely intellectual level. Many years ago, people still used to ask themselves how the world really worked. The majority of people today no longer bother to think about it or don’t have the time. I firmly believe we would be better off embracing a return to humanism—to figure out what it’s really all about.

Geißler: Yes, many people hope to gain time and use it for their own interests. An economist would say that we are gaining time in order to turn more of it into money, or to do so in a way that generates more money. That’s because economists adhere to a time-is-money logic.

Boos: But it is up to us to rid ourselves of this logic after 200 years of being conditioned to believe in it.

Geißler: Yes, 200 years of scheduling. The clock has always set the pattern for human action. However, the clock is relinquishing its control over the organization of time. The clock has served its time. It’s time for the clock to go.


What will replace it?

Geißler: From now on cell phones will handle time management in our everyday lives. In other words, we’ll no longer be organizing our time around long-term appointments but rather around short-term decisions. Today we say things like, I’ll be there before noon and I’ll phone you to let you know exactly what time.

Boos: I like it much better when an appointment is set for an exact time. That way, at least I know the rest of the time up until then is my own. When everyone is always leaving things open ended, no one can plan anymore. And no one has the time to get things done without interruptions.

Geißler: That’s true. But any alteration in our approach to time is a hands-on experiment to discover whether the change pays off or not. It’s not something you can examine in a lab. You can only decide whether there are any benefits or not by how it affects your everyday life. One person chooses a standard cell phone, another has a smartphone. I, for one, don’t own a cell phone at all, while others have three. But that’s the way it is in today’s society.


Mr. Boos, you’ve brought two smartphones along.

Boos: Ah, one is for personal calls and I use the other as an organizer. I’m very calendar-driven but not very time-driven.

Geißler: What do you mean by calendar-driven? Appointment-driven?

Boos: That’s right, I have a lot of appointments but I don’t tackle any two things at one and the same time.

Geißler: That’s the right approach.

Boos: I never have enough time for the many things that interest me. Which is why people who multitask in my presence are a real thorn in my side—because they’re being careless with my time. Why squander time sitting around in meetings when everyone is reading e-mails on their phones? It’s a total waste of time!

Geißler: But that’s been going on for centuries. It’s simply called being rude.



“Artificial intelligence takes the learning experiences that humanity has already accumulated and independently applies them, multiplying their effect beyond anything we could achieve.”


Time’s pace doesn’t change. With modern smartphones including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, however, information density is increasing—which in turn condenses time.


Concerns have been raised that smartphones are further speeding up peoples’ lives.

Geißler: Well, it goes without saying. So far, we’ve always been getting faster and faster until, thanks to our new technologies, we reached the speed of light. And you can’t top that by increasing speed…

Boos: … so instead we’re doing things in parallel.

Geißler: Exactly. The new name of the game is condensation. That’s basically the appeal of self-driving cars—that even in gridlock you can still be fast. It’s the paradox of being able to surf the Net, doing this or that, while being stuck in a traffic jam. Relieved of having to drive, you can still move fast. In other words, you can be fast and slow. And that’s the advantage of transforming ourselves into a “smart” society. It’s the opposite of Taylorism, in other words, scheduling.


Mr. Boos, are you happy with the arrangement in autonomous cars whereby man proposes and machine disposes?

Boos: Yes, very. Provided that we once again ascribe social value to the “proposing” aspect. Just as an aside—people should stop worrying that human intelligence will be replaced or mankind will be toppled from its position as the pinnacle of creation. It’s beyond discussion that machine systems will soon be the better drivers.

Geißler: The hope is that autonomous driving will give us free time to do other things instead.


So how would you like to use that time in the car?

Boos: I would definitely read more or listen to audio books. Even just being at liberty to simply reflect would be wonderful. Or to look out the window—that can also be very inspiring.

Geißler: But do you really think you’ll have the chance to look out the window and experience nature much while on a highway?

Boos: I have the tremendous privilege of being able to sit on the back of a horse now and then. The fascinating thing about horses is that even at a fast pace, they’re actually quite slow. Much like driving on the highway. Before you know it, you’re confronted with so many details. This focus on slowness within speed makes you realize how productive it can be to delve into minutiae. My job—thinking through algorithmic problems—is mentally taxing. And the complex solutions inevitably have something to do with the finer points.

Geißler: Your horseback riding also ties in a lot with natural time. After all, people are still earthly creatures tuned into nature’s time. Riding lets you experience the horse’s rhythm—a rhythm you are otherwise denied in life. For you, being on horseback is a very productive and even creative way to reconnect with yourself and with nature.

Further photo credits: Wikimedia Commons & Shutterstock