How do smartphone calendars affect our sense of time?

It sounds like a big question — and it is. It’s philosophically meaty to talk about time and what it means. It’s unusual for a sociologist to broach this topic, and even more rare for a consumer researcher to do so. But it improves my deep understanding of culture and technology.

I presented findings from our research study on smartphones at the Canadian Communication Association’s annual meeting last week. Here is the abstract, and below that, my slideshare presentation. If you view the presentation ON slideshare, you’ll get the attached notes, which summarize the findings.

This article investigates the temporal effects of smartphone usage among working-aged adults. In particular, we investigate how digital calendars, built into smartphones, affect their users’ sense of time. We conceive of time here as a cultural phenomenon (as opposed to a purely empirical measurement of time). Using this cultural lens, time is a collectively defined notion, which social actors understand and manage through a variety of tools, such as watches, clocks, and in this case, calendars. We first outline how digital calendars differ from analogue ones and we then investigate how digital calendaring affects these social actors’ temporal experience. We summarize findings from a qualitative study, which found that smartphone calendars reveal the world to us as a never-ending list of things to do and people to see. Interestingly, the smartphone calendar often “disappeared” as a technology and became simply part of everyday experience. In this way, the structuring force of the calendar also disappears from view. We also found that smartphone calendars require work themselves. In this sense they are an ironic technology; their primary purpose is to “manage time,” but to do so requires time. We conclude by suggesting that our findings provide insight into our popular belief of pervasive “time poverty” despite a lack of definitive time-use evidence to support that assertion.


How does digital calendaring affect time?

Today, I’m presenting a paper at the Theorizing the Web conference, where I talk about what our use of everyday tools like MS Outlook and Google Calendar. Essentially, I provide some insight into this question: why are we so busy?

This paper will explore how contemporary web-based technologies affect calendaring and time reckoning in general. Like many other social phenomena, time reckoning is rapidly becoming a “digital” phenomenon. Millions of people use Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar. These very common web-based tools represent time in significantly different ways than traditional analogue calendars in that they make appointments digital. Digital artifacts can be ordered, and re-ordered at will, and easily “mashed up” with other artifacts.  In this paper, I trace three significant trends in calendaring. First, I will outline how the calendar, like the clock before it, has become increasingly a “personal” artifact. This shift has brought with it significant contestation and constructed the personal calendar into a symbol of “upward mobility.” Second, I sketch out the four ways in which the digital calendars differ from analogue ones: their apparent “bottomlessness,” their networked nature, the ease with which they are altered, and their low-fidelity, impersonal appearance. And finally, I will show how the digitization and personalization of calendaring are intersecting in the rise of personal mobile calendars on smartphones. I will then discuss the implications of these mobile, personal, digital calendars. I argue that the digital calendar is a paradoxical technology, which gives the impression of making “good use of time,” while at the same time masking its character as a labour-demanding device.


Changing Time: Digital calendars, smartphones and temporal transformation