Will Bougainville reopen Panguna?
Our Final Turn

Speed & Papuan time


TUMBY BAY - Around 1958 my father drove to the top of a hill on a deserted road in our 1948 Austin A40 and planted his foot to the floor.

We hurtled down the hill at increasing speed and when the car levelled out it had hit 61 mph. That’s about 98 kilometres an hour.

According to Austin, their car was supposed to be capable of 70 mph (about 113 kph) but vehicle manufacturer’s claims are usually exaggerated.

The speed limit in those days was 60 mph, or about 96 kph, so we were breaking the law, very slightly.

My 40-year old father was exhilarated and grinning all over his face. I was quite impressed too. It was a valiant effort for a 10 year old car.

Then he gave me a serious look. “We’d better not mention this to your mother or your sisters.”

Whereas my father’s interest in speed had more to do with the adrenaline rush that it produced, modern day interest in speed is more fixated on increased production and financial success.

The need for speed has been a driving force for humanity since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which occurred between 1760 and about 1840.

The cult of speed is inextricably linked to a sense of urgency. Books have been written about the benefits of urgency and how to cultivate it in modern business methods.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Time is money”. Franklin’s logic was based on the idea that time is linear. He thought that time was a scarce finite resource, you either made use of it or lost it.

In a world obsessed with speed and doing more and more in less and less time, every moment feels like a race against the clock.

In the West we have become so obsessed with the culture of speed that we fail to notice the damage it is doing to us. We now live the fast life instead of the good life.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, and all the financial gurus since, doing things slowly has become synonymous with being lazy and stupid.

When I first went to Papua New Guinea one of the phrases I often heard was “Papuan time”.  It was used in a derogatory manner by Europeans who couldn’t get used to the average Papuan’s lack of urgency.

After a while you tended to get used to it and quite a few Europeans adopted it as their own modus operandi. There wasn’t very much that couldn’t wait until tomorrow, or the day after, or perhaps, never.

In those days Papuans regarded time as cyclical, moving in great, unhurried and renewable circles. This contrasted sharply with the European concept of time as linear.

I eventually found this cultural trait attractive. It was one of the things that I found endearing about Papua. One day I took off my wristwatch and I haven’t worn one since.

I was lucky that when I returned to Australia I got a job in a quixotic nook of the public service that didn’t worship time. If there was something to be done you did it. If there wasn’t anything to do you went home early.

Strangely enough we got more done in this fashion and worked longer hours than if we were clock watching.

Unfortunately the human resources mafia caught up with us. They installed things like time clocks and demanded we fill in key performance indicator forms and other meaningless trivia.

This stuff was easy enough to get around. The first one in of a morning and last one out the door in the afternoon punched everyone’s time card for them.

We discovered that nobody in HR read the KPI forms so it was easy to keep reproducing the same garbage month after month.

The HR mafia’s most ludicrous direction regarded fieldwork. We were commanded that no matter where we were we had to stop work at 5 pm sharp.

That we might be bush-bashing through the scrub at that time looking for a suitable campsite or stuck on a clay pan repairing the fourth puncture for the day didn’t seem to occur to them.

At weekends we weren’t supposed to work at all. Presumably we had to sit in camp and twiddle our thumbs until Monday morning.

Apparently all this had to do with budgetary constraint and the fear we might claim overtime.

These directions were ignored, of course, and the paperwork suitably doctored.

However, after a while even this became burdensome, so I kissed the public service goodbye and branched out on my own as a consultant.

I never regretted it. I could work at my own speed and if I felt like sitting up at 2 am working, I did so. Same with if I felt like goofing off for a couple of days.

Papuan time has a lot to recommend it.


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Bernard Corden

“We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery.” - H G Wells

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