The Reclocking of America (and the death of the mall)

The English historian E.P. Thompson suggested that as industrial capitalism took hold in the West, we began to organize time in new ways.   A ritual cycle with lots of saints days and religious celebrations was replaced by a model in which leisure days were fewer and more concentrated (on the weekend, in the summer, etc.)  The West was being, in effect, reclocked.  (My term, not his.)

Surely, post-industrial capitalism is having this effect as well.  I believe we are cultivated a "just-in-time" model that says we prefer to dispatch things the moment they "come up."  We are disinclined to keep a to-do list.  

This means that when I think of something I want to say to someone, I much prefer to write an email.  I really do not want to make a phone call.  This is because I can dispatch the task as part of my immediate work flow.  More importantly, the email "stacks" at her end, allowing her "to get to it when she gets to it."  (A phone call demands she stop what’s she’s doing, to field the call or the message.)

This extends to our buying behavior.  The old model of retail says, in effect, "you come to us."  You, the buyer, must stop what you are doing and come to the mall, the high street, the retail outlet.  The trip there is time consuming.  Parking is almost always a high stress exercise.  The place is crowded.  The choices too numerous.  The undertaking mostly joyless.

How better it is to visit Amazon.com and make the purchase in our "work flow."  Amazon then takes care of virtually every thing else, and the package stacks, quite literally, on our door step.  It’s ready when we are.  Not the other way round.

In this model, we organize our time into one continuous flow.  This means, as others have noted, that we weave public and private time together, work and personal life blur.  But it also means that we dispatch in real time, stacking messages and purchases as we go.

This spells the end of retail as we know it.  We might use a traditional model and say this represents the "disintermediation" of the buying process and the elimination of the middle of the chain.  And this much is exactly what is happening.  But I think the deeper, cultural motive here, is the wish to respond to the dynamism and sheer press of our lives with a model of interaction that organizes time more intelligently.  To do everything called of us we are embracing another kind of disintermediation, dispensing with that to-do list stop and go model for something more fluid and just-in-time.  Thus does "time management" gives way to "improv."  Thus does planning gives way to something closer to an instantaneous "sense and respond" model.  Thus do we move in the direction of what Stuart Kauffman calls complex adaptive systems. 

Personal note: in a couple of hours I am taking the train from NYC to Rochester.  It takes 8 hours and it should be a complete nightmare.  If I have internet access (and what are the chances) I will tweet the experience with the hashtag "forgodsakehelpme."  I am traveling with physicist Steve Crandall, because, well, these days I try never to leave home without a physicist.  It’s part of my reclocking experience.  Steve has resolved never to travel without an anthropologist.  Not sure why.  

References

Kauffman, Stuart. 1996. At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1967. “Time, Work-discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present. 38. (December): 56-97.

8 thoughts on “The Reclocking of America (and the death of the mall)”

  1. Grant – Good luck on the train, I have taken that trip a few times, most often when snow here in Rochester plays havok with air travel. It is not actually a bad trip at all if you can get a good internet connection, granted a big if.

    1. Steve, thanks, I am taking a bottle of wine, and as long as Steve C can find a bottle opener, we’ll be fine. (he said bravely) Grant

  2. Something that’s really interesting about this is how important it will be for retailers to focus on the experience of shopping. As if retailers don’t spend enough time on this as it is but it always seems to me to be relatively scientific in nature, dealing with traffic flow, sight lines, what you can touch versus what you can’t and so forth. I think retailers would be wise to read a book called “Trade-Off” by Kevin Maney which is about the spectrum of fidelity versus convenience and decide where they might reside on that spectrum. In other words can you make the fidelity of the experience offset the inconvenience or conversely can you make it more convenient then ordering online from Zappos. The latter is arguably not possible. Then too I wonder if the value of qualified sales associates might change as well?

  3. Very interesting.

    Another take on the transformational aspects of the JIT model, CBC Radio here in Canada had a little segment today with the CEO of Slimtrader (https://www.slimtrader.com/) who recounts some of the current time challenges of individuals in Nigeria; time challenges linked to information asymmetries and the lack of internet infrastructure in Nigeria.

    It’s not amazon.com, but it’s a different perspective on JIT transactions.

    Audio link: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2010/12/spark-130-december-5-8-2010/ (see section entitled African e-Commerce).

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