Magazine article The New Yorker

Countdown

Magazine article The New Yorker

Countdown

Article excerpt

A pot will boil, whether or not you watch it. When people say that a watched one won't, they mean (1) that things don't always happen when you want them to, and (2) that you shouldn't stand around like an idiot, waiting for a thing to happen--in this case, for still water to become, as the Chinese say, a rope of pearls. They mean do something better with your time. Feed the fish, alphabetize the spice rack, tweet.

What if there were a device telling you how much time it would take for the pot to boil? Might knowing that the water will come to a boil in, say, a hundred and thirty-eight seconds actually dispose you to watch it do so? The feeling here is that it would. Once you know exactly when the pot will boil, there's no longer any harm in staring at it until it does. It's easier to waste time when you know how much time there is left to waste.

Such a device does not yet exist, but its equivalents are everywhere. Technology has brought a proliferation of countdowns. It's an egg-timer world. L.E.D. displays on the subway platform tell you how many minutes until the next train pulls in. Pedestrian-crosswalk signals tick off the seconds before the light turns yellow. Automobile navigation systems and airplane-cabin monitors count down to arrival. Click on a vid or download an app, and the timer kicks in. (If apps were eggs, they'd be soft-boiled.) The Times Square New Year's Eve ball drop, the pullout from Iraq, the end of the world, as per the Mayans: tick, tick, tick. Your video will resume in :12, :11, :10. Clearview Expressway: seven minutes. We are eleventh in line for takeoff.

An N.F.L. quarterback has to pay attention to a game clock, a play clock, and the so-called clock in his head, which ticks off the seconds between the snap and the likely arrival, on his blind side, of a defensive end. A Q.B.'s life seems tranquil, by comparison. Still, it's hard to complain. Studies have shown that people--in a hospital waiting room, a restaurant, a traffic jam--would rather know what they're in for. The subway updates, for example, save you from the pointless ritual of leaning over the tracks again and again to peer into the tunnel in the hope of a headlight. …

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