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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The history of time

Terrific essay by Adam Frank on the evolution of time. His book, About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, was released in September. Below are some of the key paragraphs:

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.

. . . 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.



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