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Efficiency

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

The Sydney Olympics are now over and the international sport feast will happen again in four year's time. The Olympic motto is "Citius, altius, fortius." (swifter, higher, stronger). The numerous sporting codes had their best representatives competing for the most prestigious medals in the sporting world. Speed, strength, endurance, skill and team-work were all clearly on display. The Olympics is supposed to represent human competition at its purist but the glory of the competition has led to scandals around drug usage; some athletes are seduced by the possibility of glory and not the fact of human competition. But the pure competition is more seriously thrown into question by the inequality between competitors from rich and poor countries. Many nations only enter athletes in codes that require the most minimal of equipment or facilities. Long-distance and middle-distance running is the best example of this. The sprints have not witnessed African prominence. Sailing, rowing, cycling and numerous other disciplines just don't find competitors from the underdeveloped world. Where they do they come from the elites of some of the most unequal societies on earth such South Africa, Brazil, and Chile.

The 'swifter, higher, stronger' motto has increasingly come to apply to the very organisation of the Olympics itself. The speed and efficiency with which the individual events and the event as such are planned, launched, broadcast and co-ordinated deserve a medal in itself. The Sydney Olympics was hailed as the best ever, and this meant that it was the best organised Olympics ever. Here then we have the meeting the classical values of 'swifter, higher, stronger' unfettered (more or less) by extra-human aids and the contemporary obsession with efficiency, organisation and speed. The opening and closing extravaganzas demonstrate these contemporary obsessions very well, and so does the whole set of processes from judging the events, recording results, to their broadcasting them to the world in many different time zones.

The Olympics are but a single set of events where the ideology of beating, killing time is supreme but in everyday life the concern with speed, efficiency, co-ordination and maxim effect is so much part of life that it needs little statement. In the Olympics, of course, there are genuine moments of beauty and inspiration. In most of the rest of life the ideology of speed and killing time has left precious little opporunity for sublime and truly inspired moments. With all the mod-cons (there you have it, even language is ever more abbreviated) saving time for us, we still seem to always need more time. We have 'fast-food', plastic money, the internet and web, cheap and quick air- and train-travel (except in Britain with its grossly inefficient rail network with trains forever late), and just about everything is geared for a time-saving, speedier life. (In sprint events milliseconds is the unit of time. Records are broken by fractions of a second. And appropriate technology is available to measure such new categories of time, and judge such events.) Yet, with all the time-saving strategies and devices we have problems figuring out what 'free-time' is for. The term 'workaholic' has been around since the mid-1960s but nobody has yet coined an expression for having an excess of time. This 'free-time' is consumed by more activity usually related to what is supposed to save time and energy. For example, a work-put in Gym twice a week means you believe that's enough exercise to keep you going, a quick weekend break revitalises you and is 'quality time' with your family or friends and so on.

Efficiency and the means to achieve it are in themselves not the problem. What is, is the costs to us as human beings, the costs to community and human relationships. We can create all the free time with whatever technology we possess but what ultimately matters is the time to get to know ourselves in all its complexity and the sources of its being and meanings. In these issues words and issues such as speed and efficiency are without substance. You can't get to know yourself quickly, enhance inner knowledge through short-cuts. But perhaps most of us have enough time but believe we have to be short of it to appear contemporary and in-demand!