I need a Theory of Social Relativity!

I have been looking for a nice and well-rounded theory of social relativity for years and couldn’t find anything yet. If anybody knows anything about it please, let me know. I came up with this name on purpose, inspired by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (check up on Wikipedia to refresh your memory). Just to make it clear, I am not talking about Relativism in here (check it out too). Neither about Old or New Institutionalism (if you have not heard of it, don’t worry, Institutionalists are becoming an institution by themselves).

Since Max Weber, I think social scientists pretty much understand already how conventions are naturally established by humans and other animals to gain effectiveness in our actions and use of our brains (we tend to sit in the same seat, follow the same way back home and these kind of things). Take a read on Berger & Luckman’s “The Social Construction of Reality (1966)” for a nice introduction to that subject.

I am talking about a theory that can gather Einstein’s suggestions and combine its consequences with every social aspect of our lives, a theory that can make us to rethink the role of any kind of “constant” social behavior and physical condition.

Let’s think about it: the Earth attracts us to it, just like the Sun attracts the Earth to it. You may not have thought about it but we also attract the Sun and the Earth to ourselves with a tiny force derived from our masses and therefore we also distort space and time by our individual existence just like the Sun or any other mass in rapid movement. I won’t enter into the question about where those gravitational forces come from because then we would get too philosophical (some people believe that gravity is the closest thing we know to God).

In any case, my weird correlation is: just like every mass interact with each other in the universe distorting each other’s physical reality in different degrees, we humans also distort each other’s perceptions on ourselves due to the relativity of all our conventions that are merely based on unreliable and imprecise social definitions and physical evidences that should not be perceived as truth ever (and I think we should have been told that when we were young).

The Persistence of Memory, 1931

The Persistence of Memory, 1931

Words gain meaning with time, individually to each one of us, changing according to the use we give to them and the experience we have with them over time. I can assure that the meaning of the word “love” for you is different from the meaning it has to me. Moreover, the meaning of the word “love” for you today is different from the meaning you will give to it in 5 years. And even the way the word sounds is affected by the wind and the air chemical composition (like humidity).

The values of gold or money are also just conventions that mean nothing more than some kind of physical representation of certain local social power; especially under this “social game” we have been playing called capitalism. The Incas had a completely different relationship with gold, for example. Besides, the weight of an ounce of gold also varies according to the position you are in the planet since we now know that the force of gravity is not constant around our not-so-rounded Earth.

How about the time? Besides the distortion caused by all other masses surrounding us, our planet and solar system, we now know that not every day lasts a day and not every year lasts a year, so our “sacred” seconds, minutes and hours are all mere simplistic representations of a time that is not so fixed as we wished. Consequence: don’t worry if you arrive a minute late to a meeting. Nobody knows the exact time anyway. :-)

Gosh! Everything seems to be so complex! And I am not saying that in the Parsonian sense of the expression :-) but in a social-physical angle that apparently nobody dared to merge yet. I don’t know why, but Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” came to my mind while I was writing this. Perhaps because I am living in Spain and I do think that the Mediterranean people have been facing these complexities with a pleasant sense of disdain that amuses me. Olé!

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From these places where time is money

Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote “time is money” summarize very well what I observe when exposed to places such as New York, Amsterdam or London. It was in those cities, among few others, that the monarchs, politicians and entrepreneurs of the last centuries “invented” capitalism. I am spending this weekend in London due to an MBA fair and a couple of meetings and again, as usual, I always get surprised to see how this quote is intrinsically present around these places.

Just a stupid example: do you remember when, during hotel check outs, you had to wait for somebody to verify what you consumed from the refrigerator in your room? Some hotels just ask you about it so they can avoid this “verification” cost. Well, in this Hilton I’m staying, they’re using an automatic refrigerator that counts the things you consume so nobody needs to verify any consumption or to ask you anything about it. The curious thing – for me – is that I always see something like this when I visit one of those places where “time is money”.

In most of the so called emerging markets and even in some developed markets this is not the case yet. Things are changing fast, but usually, still, time is definitely something else than money. Just ask a Brazilian during carnival or a Spaniard or an Italian during summer. I remember the case of an American entrepreneur who moved to Bahia – in the Brazilian Northeast – during the 1960’s. Since salaries were so low and everything was so cheap, he had the idea to build a factory over there and export something I don’t remember now. According to his memories, he started paying little money to the employees but they didn’t perform well and couldn’t keep coming to work for more than two weeks. So, he started a productivity bonus, paying bonus to employees in the case they reached some objectives. It didn’t work either. He raised the bonuses and dropped objectives but employees still didn’t show up or were not committed to the work. So he gave up bonuses and simply raised the salary of everybody. Still, after few weeks or months people would get tired of the work and would abandon the job. The conclusion was that people didn’t really need money to live relatively well in the coast of Bahia at that time. They preferred to have their time to sleep, play cards or whatever without money than struggling to get a salary, whatever it was. I think you see what I mean: time was not money at all in Bahia back then. The funny thing is that I read this story while staying in a ryokan – little hotel – in Japan. Do you know why I found this book there? Because this guy decided to leave Brazil and go to Japan to start his business. He ended up being a successful entrepreneur in Japan and I was reading his memories.

Time is shrinking!

I still do not understand why but time is undoubtedly shrinking. Today, 60 minutes do not represent the same 60 minutes we had in 1999. This may sound stupid, but informal surveys I have been doing for more then a year with people from different backgrounds and countries confirm my perception.

At first, I though this was due to my age (30’s), my overloaded e-mail box and accumulation of activities and friend’s contacts. But how come people working in farms in rural areas, old people retired, people sick in hospitals, young people finishing high school have the same perception that time is shrinking? Actually, so far, only 5% of the people I asked said time is passing just like always.

Let us think about that. Ten years ago I was finishing my undergrad. I already had mobile phone, internet access and a relatively time-demanding job as marketing manager in an IT company. I was young and had that amazing energy we have when we are at the 20’s, partying, working and studying all at once. At that time, still, Christmas looked something real special just like New Year ’s Eve, special in occurrence, I mean. You did not have a Christmas supper very often, only once a year and that was really cool and different. The same used to happen with football championships, for example. It was only once a year and quite pleasant (today still is one a year).

What changed? Football or family turned boring? Nothing is special anymore? I am getting depressed or what? None of that. As I said, almost everybody around me (95% so far) is feeling the same: time is flying away and there is nothing we can do. A year in 2009 is not equivalent to a year in 1999. Today people do not put Christmas decoration so inaccessible as before because they know soon they will need it again! But why is this happening?

I guess is something related to our telecommunication devices. It must be. Physics are physics, even if the Earth was spinning faster, our clock would reveal it. I suspect we can do exponentially more with the telecommunication devices we have. Today, even people hiding horses thousand kilometers away from big cities have mobile phone and e-mail accounts. They get instant messages, order veterinary materials or get invitations to marriages in the speed of light. They get more easily connected to a larger number of human beings after all. And as telecommunication devices get better in capacity and cheaper in accessibility larger is the number of people able to join this “game”.

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