“An invention that’s killing us”: The double-edged sword of modern time

Our daughter is waging a losing battle with time.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make that sound morbid. No, she’s fine and in good health. But she is discovering what most of us eventually learn — that in the most prosaic day-to-day sense (and therefore the most profound), much of life is a race to beat the clock.

No matter how much her young body needs its nourishing sleep, she must be awake by 7:00. No matter how much she’s savoring her breakfast, she must be done by 7:30. No matter how much she’s engrossed by a fascinating book, she must be out the door by 8:20. The school frowns on tardiness, and coming to class five minutes late earns you a mark in your record. Being on time is apparently one of the shining qualities that middle schools will look for when considering applications.

After school, she must read an assigned book for at least forty-five minutes. Not a problem for her, except that she’s itching to read other, more interesting stories and chafes at having to spend time on a book she doesn’t care for, with one eye on the clock. Apparently the mark of a “good reader” is not the ability to engage with a fascinating story and lose yourself in the tale, but the ability to sit and turn pages for three quarters of an hour. To be a “good reader” one must keep track of time — whereas our daughter, already a voracious reader, desperately wants to lose track of it.

And in the evening, of course, it’s bedtime by 8:40. No matter that the Family Ties episode on the Declaration of Independence is really interesting, or that the DVD of Back to the Future is getting to the really exciting bit with the lightning and the clock tower (there’s that motif of time again), or that Jon Sciezka’s Knuckleheads is so hilarious that we just have to read the next five chapters. It’s 8:40 and time for bed — so that she can wake up tomorrow and race the clock all over again.

We constantly want to stop for things — to experience something more deeply or to do something well. But we can’t stop; the clock is ticking. We are slaves to time.

Adam Frank discusses this in a fascinating post (the first in a promised series) on “The Tyranny of Modern Time”:

Today hardly anyone notices the [autumnal] equinox. Today we rarely give the sky more than a passing glance. We live by precisely metered clocks and appointment blocks on our electronic calendars, feeling little personal or communal connection to the kind of time the equinox once offered us. Within that simple fact lays a tectonic shift in human life and culture.

Your time — almost entirely divorced from natural cycles — is a new time. Your time, delivered through digital devices that move to nanosecond cadences, has never existed before in human history. As we rush through our overheated days we can barely recognize this new time for what it really is: an invention.

It’s an invention that’s killing us.

We’ve come to accept the millisecond timing for computer-driven stock trades. We assume that “overnight” is an appropriate wait for an order of goods from China. We have been schooled to believe 15 minutes is what to expect for the length of a visit with the doctor. Most importantly, we have come to accept days crowded into attention-starved blocks of appointments, “to-dos” and play dates.

For all we have learned to “produce” with this new time, it is not sustainable. What we have built can’t last in this form. It needs to change and it can change.

I’m assuming here that Frank knows and accepts that humans have never been entirely “at one” with the universe, and have always filtered reality through human-made constructs — categories of time, language, measurements, science — in order to make sense of the world. Nevertheless, I take his point; setting ourselves a little apart in order to describe the natural world is one thing, but living as though we were divorced from it is entirely another. And it is, quite possibly, screwing us up — the effects of our enslavement to compressed human time cascading into the the many real-world crises we suffer today:

There is no doubt that this new time we invented has brought us many benefits. If we start at the beginning, however, we can also see its darker, more dangerous side. If we track the bright line of its development through two centuries of science, technology and culture we can see this “modern” time pushing us all to the edge.

Once that vantage point is gained, this new version of time becomes obviously complicit in so much of our unbalancing: economies driven into dangerous waters; Earth’s altered atmospheric chemistry; the manic consumption of our natural resources.

I trust that Frank isn’t about to argue against the achievements made possible by our ever-increasing ability to calculate time to the nanosecond: the computer, the particle accelerator, the space shuttle, the Hubble, everything that has resulted in our interconnectedness and our growing knowledge of the cosmos. Clearly there is a vital place in human culture for our ever more precise conceptions of time — but just as clearly, we need not be bound by those conceptions in every area of our lives. Surely it’s possible to strike a balance. Surely there’s room for us to simply be in the center of a moment, to lose ourselves in the pleasure of our tasks and stories.

But how? Is it merely a matter of an attitude adjustment, of reminding ourselves that our deadlines and appointments aren’t as do-or-die as we make them seem? Or will Frank call for some fundamental shift in how we order society, and what would that mean in practical terms? I look forward to reading more.

(Image via Walter Sanford)

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