Friday, September 23, 2011

Feeling time

Here's an excerpt from a fascinating piece (the first in a series) by Astrophysicist Adam Frank on how the invention of "modern" time is killing us. He posts this in honor of the Autumnal Equinox. Did you know it was today?

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 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.

Click through to read Frank's thoughts on what this tyranny of modern time is doing to us. I'm reminded of some lines from Pink Floyd.

You run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it's sinking
Racing around
To come up behind you again

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