Friday, April 5, 2013

A Revolution in Time

A little more than a hundred years ago, a revolution occurred, a revolution that echoes today and that many people still find troubling. Darwin, Freud, and Einstein radically changed the understanding humans had of their place on Earth. In addition another revolution was taking place in manufacturing -- as Henry Ford pioneered mass production.

And while these ideas were about human evolution, human nature, physics and consumer goods respectively, they also contained new ideas about our understanding of time.

Prior to this, most people believed that the world had been created about 6000 years earlier. Instead Darwin asserted that humans had evolved for possibly millions of years. Geologist later found that the Earth itself was 4.5 billion years old and astronomers established that the universe was 13.8 billion years old. Freud made the assertion that childhood affected us for the rest of our lives and that our adult behavior could be controlled by our early upbringing. Einstein said that time was part of a space-time continuum and could not be seen as separate from space. And even more troubling, he stated that time was relative.

Freud believed that adults were often ruled by their childhood, 
thus making them prisoners of their past. (

Darwin's findings meant that humans were not a special species created by a supreme being but instead had evolved from animals. The related findings of geologists and astronomers meant that humans had only been alive for a tiny portion of the time that the universe had been around and therefore were not that important.  Freud's ideas meant our adult behavior was controlled by our past childhood and therefore we were not nearly as rational or in control as we thought. And finally Einstein showed that time itself was changeable and not what we had believed.

The cumulative impact of these findings was to divorce us from our previously cherished ways of understanding and relating to time.

The short time that humans have been on this Earth pales in comparison to the vast age of the universe. This very modern understanding of time has only come about during about the last 100 years. The latest contemporary estimates put the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years. (

Then Henry Ford developed the assembly line which sped up production by a factor of eight. With his new system, for example, a Model T took 1.5 man-hours to put together, whereas before it had taken 12.5 man-hours. Based on efficiency, time now became just another commodity which could be utilized. This method was so successful, it was copied around the world and led to millions of mass produced quality goods while shackling workers to repetitive boring work and the iron grip of the clock.

Henry Ford's assembly line is now applied to a wide variety of tasks, 
even to making doughnuts! It is a critical component of the industrial world 
which treats time as a commodity. (

But the revolution did not stop here. The invention of electronic communications, the adoption of standards for world time and time zones, plus the invention of incredibly accurate clocks created a world where clocks were synchronized to each other and could be found everywhere.

Standard Railway Time was adopted in the United States in 1883, 
dividing the country into 5 time zones. Many protested. The Indianapolis Sentinel 
wrote that people would now "eat sleep work ... and marry by railroad time."

In addition, still and film photography, video and television all created a different sense of time. They recorded the world so that we could look at the past as it happened -- so that time, in a sense, could now be grabbed and taken hold of. Family photo albums, instant replays, news reports and YouTube allowed us to freeze the past and to look at time in a totally new way.

Yet there was still another dramatic change in the human relation to time -- a  shift  caused by the switch from a farm culture to an industrial one. Only one hundred years ago, around 1900, most societies were agrarian and most people worked on farms. Yet with industrialization, people brought up on farms moved to the city to find work. And so farmers who had woken with the sun were now going to work by the clock.

All of these different revolutions signaled the end of long held beliefs, the end of a close relationship to the Earth and the dominance of clock time. 

I believe that much of the alienation, 
felt in cities today, is due to a disconnect 
between people and their world around them --  
which is partly due to the dominance of clock time

We are governed by clock time -- be late to work and you'll be fired. Be late to class and you'll flunk. Be late to a restaurant and it may be closed. Stay in the bathroom too long and you'll miss the beginning of your favorite TV show. And at the same time be constantly on alert 24/7 for text messages, phone calls, e-mails and voice mails. 

What is needed now is a more nuanced understanding of time -- one that realizes the human experience of time is different from clock time. The clock has allowed us to manage time and to coordinate. Our state-of-the art devices can slice, dice and synchronize time like never before. And this is very useful. Yet human nature and human needs operate differently -- so it is essential that we be in touch with that aspect as well.

The point is that there are occasions when we should divorce ourselves from clock time. We should develop another way of relating to time, while realizing that work and such will be governed by it. Clock time keeps us focused, vigilant, on the lookout -- which will cause a person to be nervous and anxious if that is their only experience of time. 

We need to have two time skills:
one by the clock
the other off the clock
Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. 
William Faulkner
The society already provides a few ways to escape the grip of clock time. 

Films, for example, are never a specific length. When we go to a movie we simply let the story and music carry us along until the end. Music often does not have a specific duration. Go to an art gallery and lose yourself in the timelessness of the art. At bars people forget about the time. We tend to let weekends be less rigid than workdays.

A number of slang terms express this sense, such as: chill, hang out, down time, off the clock, veg out, vegging, take it easy.

Nevertheless the modern world makes it hard for us to relax while experiencing the 'now moment' (see my blog) as it happens. Our minds are often elsewhere -- thinking about plans for tomorrow or mistakes we made today.

If you really want to turn off the clock and feel time in a different way, go watch a sunset. Get caught up in the drama of the lengthening shadows, the changing colors on the clouds, the golden light -- the magic time as filmmakers call it. But don't rush off the minute the sun sinks below the horizon, instead stay there and watch the light fade, the gradual shift from color to black and white -- okay I'm a photographer, I notice these things -- the twilight time when light passes into night. And BTW, shut off your cell phone :)

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