Why have we given a whole section to Time? Well, scroll through this page and hopefully the answer will emerge. There is a basic relevance to how machines and time – or machine time – interact to affect us.
Any easy place to start is with a quote from Lewis Mumford (1895 -1990) who was a sociologist and great thinker about humanity in the machine age. He said:
The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.
What he was getting at is that our modern sense of time came through the invention of a machine, and this sense of time is more important than all the ‘revolution’ attributed to industrial change brought about by steam and other fuel-driven machinery. Whether he was right or not, he did raise an important point about how machines and technology can have important effects on the way we think, relate to each other, live our lives, work, play….
There’s a great film called About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. It starts with a man on the day of his retirement waiting for 5 o’clock, the time when he is habitually accustomed to see as being allowed to leave work:
The dreaded “9 to 5” routine that many of us have faced is characteristic of recent times.
Perhaps we’ve all felt like a hamster on a wheel. It’s not a new experience. The poet WH Auden (who was briefly introduced to new generations by the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) captured the mood in a play written with Christopher Isherwood in 1936 which contrasts news of an expedition up a mountain called F6 with the humdrum lives of Mr and Mrs A. In The Ascent of F6 here’s Mr A describing his day:
No, nothing that matters will ever happen;
Nothing you’d want to put in a book;
Nothing to tell to impress your friends –
The old old story that never ends:
The eight o’clock train, the customary place,
Holding the paper in front of your face,
The public stairs, the glass swing-door,
The peg for your hat, the linoleum floor,
The office stool and the office jokes
And the fear in your ribs that slyly pokes:
Are they satisfied with you?
Nothing interesting to do,
Nothing interesting to say,
Nothing remarkable in any way;
Then the journey home again
In the hot suburban train
To the tawdry new estate,
Crumpled, grubby, dazed and late:
Home to supper and to bed.
Shall we be like this when we are dead?
What time actually is nobody knows! . Saint Augustine, who is well worth reading even if you’re not remotely religious, said: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” If you “stop to think” about this you may get a hint of what he meant. What does “stopping to think” mean anyway? Are we moving or is it time that is moving? Physicists have no idea what time is either. Brian Greene, a Professor of Maths and Physics, begins his book The Fabric of the Cosmos by stating:
Our entire existence – everything we do, think, and experience – takes place in some region of space during some interval of time. Yet science is still struggling to understand what space and time actually are. Are they real physical entities or simply useful ideas?…. Does time have a beginning? Does it have an arrow, flowing inexorably from past to future, as common experience would indicate?
Scientist these days are quite open to the idea that time can moe in all sorts of directions (if it exists at all) including backwards! Modern physics is mind-boggling, but we live our lives on the basis of common sense. However, that ‘common sense’ – in this case how we understand time – is itself constructed by things like clocks and iPads, routines, habits, mental states and so on.
Our own experiences of time differ widely. Holidays pass all too quickly, a work day seems to go on for ever. Older people say their days seem very long, yet paradoxically the years pass very quickly. Our popular, everyday language reflects our different perceptions of time. Time drags, time weighs heavy, time passes (quickly or slowly), time seems to stand still, time flies – and so on. The more we think about it, the more confused or intrigued (or both!) we become. “Time” has been a favourite subject for writers, poets and artists since recorded history began.
Philippe de Champaigne, 1671
Time running out, death, life. Shakespeare described the ‘seven ages of Man’ in his play, As You Like it:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Interestingly this idea – that we are all just actors on a stage – anticipates The Matrix film where we’re all just bits in a computer program. Shakespeare had his bright moments but he loved reminding us all that life is very brief. In the famous lines from Macbeth his character suggests it’s not only brief but utterly futile, ‘signifying nothing’:
Cheerful stuff. From such gloomy thoughts comes the advice to “seize the day” – Carpe Diem as the Romans said – and highlighted in the this clip from Dead Poets Society:
Such advice is common. Live for today. There’re no pockets in shrouds. The present is all that counts. It’s not just in ‘heavy’ films and literature, stuff about time crops up. A pop song by British group Cupid’s Inspiration, Yesterday has Gone reached Number 4 in the charts in 1968 (along with many songs of the time that had ‘profound’ lyrics). It opens:
And tomorrow hasn’t started
All that really matters is right now
And you should live a lifetime in each minute
Take the sweetness from within it
Yesterday has gone without a sound
In current times more serious folk with a ‘New Age’ slant talk wisely about ‘the power of NOW’ (after Eckhart Tolle’s book of the same name). Meditation and mindfulness courses are hugely popular – including in business and military environments – as ways of improving concentration and preventing minds from wandering. Yet we live in times when children are increasingly diagnosed with ‘attention deficit disorder’ and ‘hyperactivity’.
Children are not alone in complaining of boredom. We do anything to avoid it, including turning to our machines – television, music players, internet, social media. There is a horror of ’emptiness’. It is as if time has to be passed or filled. There is one sense of deep boredom called ennui which is a sense of total emptiness. The French poets Charles Baudelaire wrote a poem called ‘To the Reader’ which ends with these chilling words about ennui:
But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch-hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The monsters screeching, howling, grumbling, creeping,
In the infamous menagerie of our vices,
There is one uglier, wickeder, more shameless!
Although he makes no large gestures nor loud cries
He willingly would make rubbish of the earth
And with a yawn swallow the world;
He is Ennui!-His eye filled with an unwished-for tear,
He dreams of scaffolds while puffing at his hookah.
You know him, reader, this exquisite monster,
-Hypocrite reader,-my likeness,-my brother!
There are more than 50 million pages resulting from a Google search for ‘boredom’.
Well, you may be finding this all rather boring and hop to something else. Quickly. Or although it may not be boring to think a bit about boredom, it may be very uncomfortable.
If you have read this far, hopefully you understand just why ‘time’ may be important to our interactions with digital machines. Or you may not ‘have time’ to think about time and stuff like that, such has how much time you give to machines.