Society

The Tyranny Of Modern Time

Living in the past: A man greets the spring equinox on top of a pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. i i

hide captionLiving in the past: A man greets the spring equinox on top of a pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Susana Gonzalez/Getty Images
Living in the past: A man greets the spring equinox on top of a pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Living in the past: A man greets the spring equinox on top of a pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Susana Gonzalez/Getty Images

This morning when you got up, did you feel anything different? As you rushed through getting your kids ready for school, grabbing breakfast and slogging through the morning commute, could you feel the celestial milestone you were passing? Probably not. And that is exactly why the crisis we face as individuals and as a society is so difficult to recognize.

The baseline crisis we must understand and confront is not one of economics, climate change, resource depletion or alternate-reality Republicans. Below them all is a crisis in time. Until we recognize it for what it is, we will be powerless to address the challenges surrounding us, hounding us.

Today is the autumnal equinox, when the hours of sunlight balance the hours of night. For most of human history the equinox — connected as it was to the harvest — was celebrated with elaborate festivals, rites and rituals. The equinox was a compass point. It was a mile marker for the lived year. Life was experienced through sky and season rather than through the construct of the clock. The equinox bound human communities together in a shared time that was both personal and cosmic.

Today hardly anyone notices the 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.

Like the balance embodied in the equinox, a balanced life and a balanced culture are both possible and necessary. In an act of cosmic irony tied closely to the celestial imperatives of the equinox, grand ideas coming out of science and cosmology are setting the stage for such a change.

Today, I begin a four-part series of posts — I'll try and do one each week — about the unspoken cultural assumptions defining time in our era. I will start with physics and cosmology, then go further. The issue I want to address is how we have been trained to see and use time. I want to talk about how it stalks us, driving our lives and culture past sustainable limits.

This series will be based on research I did for my book that comes out next week, About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. The book includes a great deal about the history of cosmology and new ideas that are poised to replace the "big bang" (see last week's discussion on the end of the big bang). In this series of posts, however, I will focus mainly on human side of the equation: the history of the human experience of time.

We need to see how this time was created and how it ended up accelerating and compressing life in dangerous ways. Finally, we need to see how human constructions of time have changed in the past and how they can still change in future.

Let me start by asking you a simple question: What time is it right now?

To answer this query you probably looked at the clock on your computer or on your cell phone. It told you something like 9:12 a.m. or 11:22 a.m. or 1:37 p.m. But what is 1:37 p.m.? What is the meaning of such an exact metering of minutes?

Mechanical clocks for measuring hours did not appear until the fourteenth century. Minute hands on those clocks did not come into existence until 400 years later. Before these inventions the vast majority of human beings had no access to any form of timekeeping device. Sundials, water clocks and sandglasses did exist. But their daily use was confined to an elite minority.

In ancient Rome, for example, noon was called out by someone watching to see when the sun climbed between two buildings. That was how exact it got for most people. Asked what time it was back then, the best you could have answered — the best you needed to answer — would have been "after lunch."

So did 1:37 p.m. even exist a thousand years ago for peasants living in the Dark Ages of Europe, Song Dynasty China or the central Persian Empire? Was there such a thing as 1:37 p.m. across the millennia that comprise the vast bulk of human experience?

The short answer is "no."

But 1:37 exists for you. As a citizen of a technologically advanced culture, replete with omnipresent time-metering technologies, you have felt 1:37 in more ways then you probably want to think about. Waiting for a 1:30 train into the city you feel the minutes crawl by when the train is late. The same viscous experience of these minutes (and seconds) oozes into your life you each time you wait for the microwave to cycle through its 2-minute and 30-second cooking program.

You feel minutes in a way that virtually none of your ancestors did. You feel them pass and you feel them drag on with all the frustration, boredom, anxiety and anger that can entail. For you, those minutes are real.

Measured against the long arc of human evolution, that experience is something new and utterly radical. In 2000 BCE or 850 CE there was no culturally agreed-upon 1:37 p.m. It simply did not exist and it could not have existed. We invented it and all of the time-behavior that goes with it. Then we used that time to imagine entire new ecosystems of human activity into existence.

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.

Climbing to that vantage point is the next step in our journey. I leave it, therefore, for next week. (Let's say next Tuesday at 8:15 a.m., sharp!)


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter.

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