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When Time Became Money

Cartoon wristwatch. i

We created this Time becuase our technologies allowed it and it made sense for reasons of economics and production and efficiency. hide caption

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Cartoon wristwatch.

We created this Time becuase our technologies allowed it and it made sense for reasons of economics and production and efficiency.

Raise your hand if you have enough time. Raise your hand if you do not feel squeezed for every second of the day as you run through electronic calendar mandates of meetings and e-mails, playdates and doctor appointments.

I doubt many hands went up.

No one has enough time.

If, however, you consider your situation to be nothing more than the human condition, you should reflect for a moment. While all human lives have been bounded by the sleep of birth and death, the hyper-metered, hyper-scheduled, just-in-time life you live now is an invention. We made it up. We created this Time becuase our technologies allowed it and it made sense for reasons of economics and production and efficiency. But, while this time we live is a product of the science and technologies we develop, it is not a consequence of the laws of physics or cosmic history.

In the 50,000-year march of human culture we have had many Times. We have had many uses for, and experiences, of time. None of them have been God-given or science mandated. In fact, these Times, these day-to-day experiences of life through time, arise exactly at the intersection of cosmos and culture. We invent them and they invent us.

I am in the middle of writing a new book. Depending on your viewpoint it's either a social history of cosmic time or a cosmic history of social time. The best of part of writing is reading. In doing research I have encountered amazing material on the emergence of modern time consciousness in Europe of the Middle Ages. The key development was, it turns out, the distribution of public clocks.

The beginning was the town square — the bell tower. Then, as the centuries progress, clocks make their way into manufacturing institutions and homes and finally onto our bodies in the form of pocket watches. The transition was slow but with it came a sweeping, radical and all encompassing re-imagining of time that has accelerated into the crazed life-in-15-minute-intervals human universe we inhabit today.

Perhaps the most important transition in all of this was the lifting of time from natural cycles of daylight and human or animal work. This includes the very natural experience of exhaustion. In its place came an abstract time. The hour was a unit devoid of context and with this stripping of embodied duration came the ability to turn time into a commodity. Time could become money in a simple equation that equated two abstract de-contextualized units (duration and currency).

So began wage slaving. The world, our world, has never been the same. Time economies emerged and with it a wave of "isms": Taylorism; Marxism; Existentialism (no, I don't think the last one is a stretch).

Now here comes the interesting point for cosmos and culture — that same abstracted time flowing through the factories of the industrial revolution was also the very lifeblood of the new sciences gaining footholds across Europe. This absolute, abstracted time allowed the grand theories of Newton, Laplace and others to recreate both heaven and Earth in the image of a powerful all-encompassing universal physics. The time of celestial mechanics and the time of the mill worker were the same — both new, both invented, both transformative.

Our view of the Cosmos changes and our culture changes with it. Or does it happen the other way around? Which way do the influences flow and does that flow only move in one direction? Human invention and human discovery, cultural artifacts and scientific truth — how do these overlap? Does one always lead the other or can they change places like horses on the track?



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