The other day, I had to do business with somebody who was very concerned with punctuality. He was adamant that, of all the things somebody could bring to their meeting, the time of arrival was the only one that counted. Whenever somebody was late, he would prattle on about how “Punctuation is the essence of courtesy”. Watching him constantly checking his watch (he was one of those people who still wear the time on their wrist) was like being in the room with a character from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. It was exhausting.
He was an intelligent, and pleasant man, but punctuality was his blind spot and that made him a relic of the past. The whole obsession with precise scheduling was a brief blip in human history, and modern technology has made it irrelevant. See, from the dawn of history, time was a messy and imprecise thing. You got up when the Sun rose. You knew the day was half over at Noon, when the Sun was at its highest, and you had your dinner and prepared for bed when it set again. As civilization advanced, we found ways to divide up the day into smaller units, but accuracy was hard to achieve. Even the first mechanical clocks could lose up to a half hour every day and it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that clocks were first given a Minute hand.
Nobody saw any reason to be more precise than that until the railway and telegraph networks began spreading across the globe. Suddenly it was possible to communicate with people very far away, and accurate time became important. Soon, people found that if they were to catch their trains, they would have to time their movements to arrive exactly at the time printed on the schedule. And once the habit had been established, and people got used to arriving at a station at the correct time, they got used to not having to wait around and kill time. And this new impatience spread into all areas of their lives. “Why should I wait in this restaurant for fifteen minutes, when I know for a fact that your train arrived at 3:55pm?”, you can imagine then thinking.
So that became the convention. We could pack a great deal of appointments into a limited time and if anybody was ever late, that threw out our schedule. To be late meant to disrupt somebody else’s day, which is why lack of punctuality came to be seen as so discourteous.
But then mobile phones arrived. And boy, did that change everything. Because now, if you’re sitting at a table waiting for a friend who hasn’t arrived, you no longer have to fret and wonder whether they’ve been caught up by a few minutes, or been caught in an accident, or have simply forgotten about you. You call them. And if you are running late, you can simply call to explain, or call off the meeting, or take whatever steps are necessary to lessen the impact of your tardiness. It’s still inconvenient, to be sure, but the impact has been lessened a great deal.
Meanwhile, we kept up the habit of cramming ever more into the same twelve hours of sunlight. And along with mobile phones came the Internet, and cheap cameras, and VoIP, and video conferencing. Suddenly meetings themselves became more fluid. Why waste half an hour of your limited time travelling to somebody’s office when you can simply speak to them right now, from your own desk?
The very idea of scheduling a meeting is becoming obsolete, and we save it for only the most important discussions where all distractions need to be eliminated. Otherwise, we simply call up a meeting on our computers, same as we might have made a phone call. If not everybody is available, we let our computers find a spot in our collective calendars, and if some new thing comes up that demands our time, we simply call for a reschedule.
So punctuality has stopped being a thing people worry about. The reasons why it used to matter may be more important than ever – our time is increasingly precious – but the way we shepherd those minutes has changed. We don’t obsessively schedule anymore, because we are more fluid, constantly adapting, letting our technology shuffle our tasks and appointments for us. So that, nowadays, we expect our schedules to bend to our convenience, and not the other way around.