When the world moves too fast
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #77

When the world moves too fast, a delay can be valuable. This is not to say that instant access to everything is devalued when it becomes ubiquitious. Well, not quite. But variety - value flowing against the norm - is as much a part of the knowledge revolution as is the immediacy of instant access. Both are consequences, not causes, of the inherent properties of a knowledge economy, of decentralisation and deformalisation. Immediacy does not make the knowledge economy and, while generally useful, does have its occasional disadvantages.

The immense value of immediacy is often illustrated with examples from the changing shape of the media. Although the practical purpose of watching missiles flying over the skies of Baghdad is unclear, most people found something fantastic about perceiving, almost experiencing, the Gulf War in real time over CNN. So we can assume that this was valuable, as much as anything else in the intangible knowledge market.

The worth of this medium was clearly in its immediacy, in its providing multi-sensory inputs directly from where the action was, while it was happening. If one ignores the fact that the camera is rarely objective, and conveys original expression or bias with equal ease, than it is also clear that the worth of immediacy was not just in the conquest of time, but in the conquest of intelligence.

Immediacy hacks away at the levels of time-consuming intelligent processing that goes into editing information, in favour of giving it to the consumer raw. Consumers are supposed to have whatever expertise is necessary for such processing, and to do so themselves. Presuming consumers to be dumb would be insulting, though perhaps accurate; but presuming them to be capable of processing information instantly, at the speed raw data arrive, would be naive. Intelligence needs time.

Time is something with which immediacy - instant access - is not on very good terms. When immediacy (outside the realms of tactile perception) was but science fiction, time was nothing special. The less of it, the better. Technology gave life to that maxim, and as speed grew value the pendulum swung towards immediacy. But when everything happens at once, deliberation becomes valuable again. To borrow from the media world again - people will always find value in the Economist article a week after the bombs fall.

Immediacy's advantages are many, and they apply widely to the world at large, far beyond the confines of the media business. Its disadvantages will be similarly widespread. Time is of the essence, and will have positive as well as negative worth. Although immediacy's cause, decentralisation, works against intermediaries, middlemen who provide some service - apart from simply being in the middle - will profit from much needed pauses for thought amidst the headlong rush for progress.

Already, even in this age of just-in-time deliveries, some people not only avoid paying penalties for delays, but charge for them. Consultants, mercenaries paid by the hour or the day, have always known the positive worth of time - their time - to clients. In a superfast knowledge economy that compromises intelligence for time, these presumed pockets of expertise will definitely not be a dying breed.

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