On Time

I have to say that this newspaper article from 1992 predicted our future right on the money. I’m an “automation enthusiast”, so I’m all about the time saving device. Just for fun I entered “time saving device” into Google and clicked “I’m Feeling Lucky”. I was directed to this question:

If every year time saving devices are invented (i.e. computers, cell phones, email, etc…) then why do we still need a 40 hour work week?

As I’ve said before, this is another manifestation of the Jevons Paradox. If I wanted to hire someone to paint a building and I had to choose between someone with a bucket of paint and a paintbrush, or a guy with a power sprayer, the latter is undoubtedly more expensive per hour, but cheaper per square foot of wall. He’ll also have the job done faster. That means the demand for the guy with the sprayer is higher. His time saving device gives him more work and less time.

Saving Time is the Myth of Home Automation

In Industrial Automation, we never really talk about saving time. We talk about saving labor and saving money. We talk about increased productivity, efficiency, throughput and uptime. Time is a constant.

Yet at home we talk about time like it’s a variable. As if you could have more of it. What an odd concept when you think about it…

I’ve recently spent some time trying to think of a good time saving home automation device to create, and I’m convinced it’s a pointless activity. Would an automatic pet feeder save me time? Possibly, but you still have to refill it, the parts are likely to wear out, and it has to be cleaned regularly. It takes one of us less than 30 seconds to feed the dog every day. That’s about 3 hours per year. But if you spent 10 minutes a month cleaning it, that’s 2 hours a year right there, and how long are you going to spend fiddling with it when it finally breaks down? Even if there was no extra time, would you spend $100 to save 3 hours? It’s marginal, but doubtful.

Now where that pet feeder really shines is if you have a dog with a special need. It can feed your animal up to 8 times a day, so if your dog was diabetic, then you can start to see that it solves a difficult problem really effectively.

Would a robot vacuum save me time? I think you’ll find that it fails in the same way that the pet feeder fails: you have to clean out the vacuum bucket every time it cycles, and you have to take it apart to clean the brushes regularly. The batteries need replacing, and most reviews I’ve seen indicate that you still need to vacuum once every couple of weeks. It doesn’t save you time. It gives you the ability to vacuum more often.

Look at the three successful categories of home automation: HVAC, lighting, and audio/video. None of those are about saving you time. They’re all about improving the (perceived) quality of life. A new robot that folded your laundry for you wouldn’t be as successful as a closet that color co-ordinates your outfits for you. Everyone can fold laundry but not everyone can pick an outfit. There’s a market for the latter.

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