Monday, December 9, 2013

Modern Time: Time as a Commodity

about the cultural aspects of time in my previous blog: 
Spend a little of your time with me and I will explain how our industrialized and commercial civilization has changed the nature of time for us as human beings.

We have all dealt with children who live entirely in the now moment. Part of our job as adults is to teach them our shared beliefs about time. This is so critical that it often becomes a major sticking point and causes serious arguments.   

This is what we teach them: In our consumer society we often think of time as a commodity with expressions such as 'time is money' or 'wasting time' or 'lost time' or 'time to spare'. When our children 'have time' they can 'spend time' with or 'give time' to a friend. And if they are about to 'run out of time', they might be able to 'buy some time' if they are clever.

Becoming widespread around 1300 BCE, the hourglass was accurate and also provided a way to visualize time. The future was the sand at the top, the tiny hole where sand fell was the present and the sand at the bottom was the past. Time became a commodity. Because the hourglass was so visual, it became an universal symbol for time. (
To 'manage time' we teach our children to think of time spatially, with the past behind and the future forward. We teach them to make sure they always have the 'right time' and then to 'make room' for the things they want to do and have to do. They want to avoid a 'crowded schedule', do some things 'ahead of time' and to not be 'pressed for time' and to not get 'behind schedule' or 'run late'. As they grow older this sense of time expands and they learn to get to the school bus 'on time' and go to bed with 'time to spare'. 
A typical modern planner, where time is envisioned as chunks & blocks of space. A person's daily, weekly and monthly future is laid out on a spacial grid. (
In the process we are teaching our children that actions have consequences and that what they did in the past matters.  We tell them that they need to remember what they did, so they can build on the past to accomplish things in the future. And we encourage them to imagine the future -- all within the framework of western culture.

A long term project planner page for the MUOS satellite system (Mobile User Objective System) from 2006-2013. This page describes the schedule for the build, launch and operation of 4 geosynchronous satellites. (
All of these time expressions are concepts and the values we share are based on mechanical, clock time.

Most of us think of the time produced by our clocks as time itself. Yet the only thing natural about the time produced by clocks is that it is originally based on a complete revolution of the earth (or more precisely, the average of such revolutions). The division of that period into 24 equal hours -- generally treated as two successive periods of 12 hours each (AM and PM), the division of each hour into 60 minutes, and the further division of each minute into seconds are all conventions -- human inventions. 
Keith Devlin from his blog: Devlin's Angle
The idea of time as a commodity has been around for hundreds of years in the US:
Time is money.
Benjamin Franklin, Advice to Young Tradesmen (1748)
And 150 years later: 
Observe a method in the distribution of your time. Every hour will then know its proper employment, and no time will be lost
Bishop George Horne

A BMW production line, where every aspect has been scrutinized using time-motion studies to provide the most efficient methods for assembling cars. (
Although work time is treated as a commodity, as humans we also have a need to experience time as a flow, not as chunks. This is why young people flock to rock concerts which erase fragmented and divided time. And other people drink, since alcohol can dissolve the division between each tick of the clock. 

Time is different depending on how we treat it and value it. We all know the concept of 'quality time', which is not the same as distracted or rushed time. We all know that ten minutes of intense and satisfying love making is qualitatively different from eight hours on the job. Many of us have had an 'ah-ha' moment of feeling wonderfully alive and joyful -- which may have only lasted for a brief time, but which we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. 

So my points are these:
  • Time is real, objective and exists independently -- just like the sun . We know this because the sun sets every night and rises every morning and the seasons change and our children grow older.

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge in modern tines (1980s). The same sun that rose 5000 years ago at Stonehenge rises today -- it is only our way of telling time that has changed. (
  • Our understanding of time is cultural -- how we experience time and deal with time is determined by our culture

A free program, that I downloaded and installed on my computer, tells time worldwide within a second, as it synchronizes itself to an atomic clock over the Internet. 
  • Time is subjective: when we are off duty, we experience time differently than when we are on-the-clock. For example, you need to arrive at 2 pm sharp for a meeting at work, but it's okay to arrive 15 minutes late for a  2 pm party on the weekend.
Hope you're not watching the clock when this is happening to you. 
  • Different from all the other animals, the human brain has given us an expanded and sophisticated sense of time, another sense just like touch or smell. This sense, which is related to memory (past) and imagination (future), is the reason we can grasp time and not just live in the moment. And also this is why we have survived and are the dominant species on the planet.

You as an individual can learn to live both on the clock and off the clock, to experience time in a number of ways. These are skills just like any other skills. 

There are times when you need to be able to feel the moment intensely as it is happening or you need to let time flow effortlessly when being creative. 

Yet when you are at work, you must operate quite differently -- you need to be vigilant, constantly alert and on top of things. 

There are other times when you need to turn off your cell phone and give your full attention to your spouse or child or best friend. And there are other times when you need to withdraw and follow an interesting idea within your thoughts without being interrupted.

These choices about time are up to you and they greatly affect the quality of your life, your personal comfort zones and how you feel about yourself.

Does Bluebell, the cat, care what time it is or whether there is a message on the cellphone? (

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