A few years ago, I met with a retired partner of the accounting firm where I trained for my professional designation.  During our discussion over coffee, as he observed the many people around us unable to move their eyes from the screens of their mobile devices, he remarked that “so much time is wasted these days.”  I have often had the same thought myself, and the accountant in me wonders how the expenditure of time can be quantified objectively to improve our chances for better outcomes in the future.

Maybe we can think of time like a currency that we are all born with and that we can choose to spend in different ways during our lifetimes.  Each of us has a limited amount of this currency, and not knowing whether our time will be long and short we are naturally driven to spend our currency wisely to maximize its return and benefit during our lifetime.

In making our choices to spend time we can be guided by the outcomes of our past experiences with time, and we can be guided by the perspectives of others.  One whose perspective on time we would do well to appreciate is Tristan Harris.

In 2016 Tristan introduced the “Time Well Spent” movement to the world with much acclaim.  While employed at Google as a design ethicist, Tristan observed “the large-scale negative impacts of attention-grabbing business models” of companies like his employer.  His concerns about the effects of the monopolization of people’s time becoming acute during and after the 2016 U.S. election, Tristan founded of the Center for Humane Technology in 2018.  The Center’s mission is to align technology to humanity’s path to the future, “to drive a comprehensive shift toward humane technology by changing the way technologists think about their work and how they build products.”

I found Tristan’s “Inconvenient Truth” video presentation at https://humanetech.com/problem/ to be very compelling for the passionate belief that it conveys and for the future choices it asks us to consider.

While Tristan’s call for Time Well Spent can be seen as a challenge to some business models, it could also – and perhaps more profitably – be seen as an invitation to a new, more adaptable and scalable business model.  The point is that business models that use technology to encourage Time Well Spent could yield far greater dividends from a satisfied and creative customer base than business models predicated on the use of technology to restrain their customers or to cause them to act in a way that limits individual variability and potential. 

One might say, “But I am not a customer of Google or social media companies because I don’t pay a fee to use them.”  Consider however that anyone who uses these services is a customer, paying not with money but instead with the currency of data on their individual time.  The data on our time is the currency that we surrender for the service received, and the algorithmic bits of the currency paid are embedded in the pixels and metadata of our videos, photos, voices, and fingerprints, in our connections and likes and dislikes registered in social networks, in our search history, in our movements tracked by GPS, in our handwriting and gestures, in our leisure habits, and now in basic functions of our homes. 

In the exchange of belief, as Luca Pacioli defined transactions between businesses and customers (see “Belief and Accounting” on the home page), is the belief received by the services that gather data on our time matched in equal and opposite measure by the belief that they owe for that data?

With the data that they gather, Google, Facebook, and other services like it are mapping a social graph.  The social graph (on which I will write more) is a term I learned from a client, and in the social graph each customer is a node that defines part of the shape of the graph.  As nodes in the social graph, we move about in time, we add, we subtract, and we multiply – always having some functional capacity of value to measure and sell to advertisers and others who want to influence our decisions.  But what will happen to the business models of the services mapping the social graph when the actions and reactions of the nodes become predictably fixed?  What will happen when the individual nodes in the social graph lose their variable potential and the graph’s topology flattens as a result?  If the monetization of the social graph becomes so successful that we cannot escape external influence over our actions and reactions, will we wind up seeing only our own memes – to the point that no one can conceive of anything different and time becomes entirely predictable and of no value to monetize? 

Susan Blackmore pioneered the examination of social memes as individual patterns of human behaviour over time (see Susan’s compelling 2008 TED Talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_memes_and_temes.)  To any business model that aims for the continued ability to expand, it seems that memes could only be of value when they maintain fluid potential with unpredictable outcomes.  If human variability decreases so greatly that the social graph becomes nearly static in its outcomes, time would seem to lose its meaning.  In a universe of probability, what can be done to maintain value in the social graph – both for its nodes and for those mapping its nodes?

This is a topic that I will explore in my next blog, focussing on Tristan’s beta-testing of a Ledger of Harms.  With this innovative ledger, the Center for Humane Technology aims to measure the “negative impacts of social media and mobile tech that do not show up on the balance sheets of companies, but on the balance sheet of society.”  From an accounting perspective, I think that an interesting consequence of gathering and correlating social balance sheet data would be to help businesses to understand how they can deploy their net assets to achieve symmetries with the social graph, and in so doing to derive a more sustainable business model through time.

Image attribution

Black windup alarm clock face by Creative Commons user: Sun Ladder [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]