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See Inside A Matter of Time

Real Time

The pace of living quickens continuously, yet a full understanding of things temporal still eludes us

In Brief

 

  • In the 21st century time has become a precious commodity, not only measured but also priced.
  • Keeping time is a practice that may go back more than 20,000 years, but it has become increasingly precise. Today time is more accurately measured than any other physical entity.
  • One of the hottest questions is whether time itself is illusory. This puzzle preoccupies not only physicists but also philosophers and anthropologists.
  • Ultimately it does not matter whether it really exists. Our reverence for time rests on a deep psychic need to recognize meaningful milestones.

 

MORE THAN 200 YEARS AGO BENJAMIN FRANKLIN coined the now famous dictum that equated passing minutes and hours with shillings and pounds. The new millennium—and the decades leading up to it—has given his words their real meaning. Time has become to the 21st century what fossil fuels and precious metals were to previous epochs. Constantly measured and priced, this vital raw material continues to spur the growth of economies built on a foundation of terabytes and gigabits per second.

An English economics professor even tried to capture the millennial zeitgeist by supplying Franklin's adage with a quantitative underpinning. According to a formula derived by Ian Walker, now at Lancaster University Management School, three minutes of brushing one's teeth works out to the equivalent of 49 cents, the compensation (after taxes and Social Security) that the average Briton gives up by doing something besides working. Half an hour of washing a car by hand translates into $4.90.

This reduction of time to money may extend Franklin's observation to an absurd extreme. Still, the commodification of time is genuine—and results from a radical alteration in how we view the passage of events. Our fundamental human drives have not changed from the Paleolithic era, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Much of what we are about centers on the same impulses to eat, procreate, fight or flee that motivated Fred Flintstone. Despite the constancy of these primal urges, human culture has experienced upheaval after upheaval in the period since our hunter-gatherer forebears roamed the savannas. Perhaps the most profound change in the long transition from Stone Age to information age revolves around our subjective experience of time.

By one definition, time is a continuum in which one event follows another from the past through to the future. Today the number of occurrences packed inside a given interval, whether it be a year or a nanosecond, increases unendingly. The technological age has become a game of one-upmanship in which more is always better. In his 2000 book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick notes that before Federal Express shipping became commonplace in the 1980s, the exchange of business documents did not usually require a package to be delivered “absolutely positively overnight.” At first, FedEx gave its customers an edge. Soon, though, the whole world expected goods to arrive the next morning. “When everyone adopted overnight mail, equality was restored,” Gleick writes, “and only the universally faster pace remained.”

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