Time is Money

#55 - Time

One of my favorite uses of science fiction is when it is used as a mirror, reflecting things about ourselves we might not have otherwise realized.    Orwell’s novel 1984 is an example of this; he wrote in 1948 and simply reversed the two numbers to give it a futuristic gloss, but one of his aims was not just to warn about the future but also to comment on his present.

This was one of the things I found compelling about “In Time.”  Visually, it looked a bit like “Gattaca” a sci-noire, futuristic-1920’s kind-of feel.

As for the message itself?  That, to me was a mixed bag.  In fact, as I ponder it, I realize that my ambiguity around the movie was in fact rooted in my wider ambiguity around capitalism as a whole.  I think Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government.”  This mentality kind of expresses my feelings about capitalism; it is perhaps the worst economic system, except for every other economic system.

The Passage of Time
Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Note the word perhaps.  That’s an important point of what I’m trying to say here.  I’m really not sure.

Because I’m just working through this, because I just am not sure, I’m violating my self-imposed moratorium on blogging political.  I don’t have an axe to grind here, it’s more like I have some ideas to ponder.

So first off: “In Time.”  The previews do a pretty good job or stating the premise.  The idea is that money is no longer our currency: time is.  We work to get more time added on to our lives.  We spend this time on shelter, food, etc.   The very “richest” have thousands of years on their hands.  The very poorest live day-by-day.  Enentually, many people just die in the street, having literally run out of time.

The protagonist is thrust in to a situation where he becomes a sort-of Robin Hood; he robs time from the rich and gives it to the poor.  This provides ample oppurtunity for some waxing philosophic around the nature of theft and justice.  For example, the film’s equivalent to a police officer has a really interesting speech about how he doesn’t care about justice, he just cares about the law.   When confronted with the theft he’s engaged in, the main character says to the robber-baron types that they are theives, too.

The power of allegory is it’s ability to sneak up on us.  In the bible, Nathan confronts David with his unjustice by dressing his actions up in symbolism.  It wallops David, right upside the head, that there is truth in Nathan’s story.

Similarly, my initial reaction was “No, the metaphor doesn’t apply, here.  Having a bunch of money isn’t like having a bunch of time added to your life.”  But actually, as I considered it more deeply, the metaphor actually does work.

The rich live in safer neighborhoods.  They can afford safer transportation.  Better health care.  Healthier food.   When things get challenging to the wealthiest among us there wealth serves as a net in all kinds of ways.  They have access to all sorts of assistance, guidance, and help through their wealth.  They are able to access schools that do a better job of preparing their kids for life, not just in teaching academic facts, but also schools which reinforce broader life lessons about the value of hard work.   The rich have easier access to healthy stimulation and entertainment, giving them broader possibilities of de-stressing and mantaing wellness,

I am not denying that charities don’t do amazing things.  I’m not saying that there are no stressors associated with being wealthy.  I am not denying some measure of personal responsibility.

But it seems to me that it’s hard to deny that wealth does not equal in an increase in time; if not an an increase in time as measured by the clock, at least an increase in the quality of the time we have access to.  Perhaps the point even more compelling than this is the idea that in fact, we do have enough resources.  Our money-based economy has created a delusion of scarcity, an image that it is a necessary evil that some people starve.

Having said all that, I do believe that the film engaged a bit in the Myth of the Noble Savage.  In the end, none of us are noble.  Acting like the under-resourced have some inherent goodness that the wealthy are with out doesn’t help anybody.

For example, when the time is freed up and passed among the poor, there is enough to go around because everyone takes exactly what they need.  In my experience, greed cuts across income.  Ultimately, greed is the same for the rich and the poor.  All of us face the risk of greedy hearts when we submit to the fear of not having enough.   While it’s true that the rich can hoard their wealth, it’s equally true that those doing with out can turn themselves over to greed, and sell out their beliefs in order to have percieved needs met.

*** Spoiler Alert*** Don’t keep reading if you want to keep some of the surprises of the end of the movie*****

This implication was bothering me just a little.  Then, near the end of the movie, their police-like force is watching the overturning of the system; so much time has been given away that it has lost all value and the formerly wealthy now have no power over the workers. 

One cop says to another “What do we do now?”

The other cop puts his gun down and says, “We go home.”

The putting down of the gun is such a small thing.  But it’s also huge.  I don’t think I’m reading into the film to say this implies the idea that they were on the verge of a whole new order, and in this new order, there would be no need for police officers.

Religious scholar John Hick classifiued Socialism as a pseudo-religion, partially based on the idea that there is this promise built into the theory, this promise of a homecoming to a limitlessly better existence.

I think to some extent, this is why we end up signing on for so many faulty idealogies.  Laissez-faire capitalism also promises an Israel for us to return to; ironically, it’s not so different than the communist one; government becomes an anachronism, people naturally do what’s in everybody’s best interest.

I think that we are wired to look for this promised land.  As far back as the Garden of Eden, we tried to approach this promised land under our own power.  And history is nohing if not the chronicle of continuing failed attempts at returning to this promised land.  We can’t do it on our own.  I wonder when we’re going to get that?