The illusion of time
Technology gives us more time, and less.
WITH radio signals controlling her solar wristwatch, a Berkeley, California physicist times her life to the second whenever she’s in her native Munich in Germany, delighting when she walks out onto the platform just as the train arrives.
“I want to know the exact time. I want to know it’s two minutes and 22 seconds past one,” says Birgitta Bernhardt, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist who is researching the smallest units of time ever measured – quintillionths of a second.
Bernhardt laughs when she talks about her fixation, but as fellow citizens of the digital age, we all share it to some degree. Seconds matter – to us, to our society, to our economy, to the world’s economy – more than ever. Technology has made it possible to do so many tasks from anywhere, and so quickly, that growing numbers of tiny moments, each with its own value, fill our days in a way new to our human experience.
We may not know the length of a quintillionth of a second, but sometimes it seems as though work, family and play bring us a seamless flow of quintillions of tasks every day.
In the 19th century, the railroads in the United States forced towns to synchronise their clocks – until then all ticking on their own local time set by the noon sun. Today, the technological drivers of our global economy are bringing the whole Earth into sync.
University of California-Berkeley professors teach online classes with assignment deadlines set on global Greenwich Mean Time. Call centre employees in Manila clock in as the sun rises in New York. A sleeping watch salesman in Carmel, California, bolts awake for a 1am call from Hong Kong about a rare Rolex, and a Palo Alto, California, tech CEO holds a 6.30am conference call with a French client whose clock says it is 3.30pm. The railroad has come again. Seven days a week for more than 25 years, John Bonifas opened and closed his jewellery and watch shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea rarely taking a day off. But when he stepped onto Ocean Avenue at day’s end, he left his business and his customers at the door.
His 30-something sons Josh and Kris aren’t behind the counter at Fourtane every day, but they are open for business day and night, all week long.
“If I really need to get some info from my brother on his day off ... I’ll call and text several times,” Kris says.
Josh specialises in vintage Rolex watches, understated pieces of history that evoke nostalgia for a pre-electronic era. But with clients and suppliers calling from all time zones, prices in the thousands of dollars, and smartphone cameras and websites moving the timepieces at a dizzying pace, his job embodies the fragmented, global time of the modern economy.
The digital age that threatened to kill the mechanical watch business instead brought it new life – and made it intensely competitive.
“If I don’t pick up the phone, it just goes to the next person within two minutes,” he says of the risk of losing a deal.
So Josh keeps his iPhone close. An important call could come in at 1am, interrupting his sleep; in the second quarter of a college football game in Mississippi; in a hospital delivery room.
It’s a family joke that minutes before his daughter’s birth, he was on the phone, making a deal.
“I got the lecture that I’m not ever present any more, which is true,” he said. “I’m always distracted on some level.”
The mobile workplace has definite advantages – chief among them, not having to go into the office on the weekends, says Steve Hoover, CEO of the Palo Alto, California-based technology company PARC, the legendary Xerox research centre that inspired Apple’s first computer.
“The fact that I can take my daughter to her dance class and work for 15 minutes while she’s doing her class, that’s great,” he says.
But figuring out how to negotiate their time with these newly blurred boundaries is a challenge for the 38% of college-educated Americans who do at least some work from home each day. That number is growing and double what it was a decade ago.
“It’s not so much the time, it’s that you’ve got to switch your head from your work world to your personal world in these microslices,” Hoover says.
He asks: What if you sneak a look at your phone while your wife is away from the table and see a troubling e-mail? “Can you push it out of your brain and focus on where you’re at?”
Hoover observes that the blending of our work and personal lives returns us to the unceasing labour of our agricultural past, when the cows needed to be milked every day.
That old way of life is still in effect at the almost 5ha Retzlaff Vineyards in Livermore, California. But unlike the Bonifas brothers, who have some control over when and where they conduct business, the natural clock governs the vintner’s work.
“Mother Nature dictates when we do it and how we do it,” says winemaker Bob Taylor, echoing farmers going back tens of thousands of years.
In early September, a test of his Merlot grapes brought a surprise: The berries were the precise balance of sugar and acidity that demanded immediate picking, days earlier than expected and just after the Chardonnay harvest.
That moment is hard to predict and impossible to ignore.
“I thought I was going to have a few days to catch my breath,” the 80-year-old vintner says, recalling the 16-hour work day and seven-day week that month.
But once the harvest is over, the pace of life relents, and Taylor cherishes the downtime that so many of us find elusive.
“You talk about time,” he says. “Here’s a thought for you. A lot of really wise people put together a HOW much of our work lives is overlapping with our personal lives? A 2012 Good Technology poll of office workers found 80% reported working an average of seven hours per week at home in addition to their regular workday. The survey also found:
7.09am is the approximate time when the average American first checks his or her phone.
50% check their work e-mail while still in bed.
68% of people check their work e-mails before 8am.
57% check work e-mails on family outings.
38% routinely check work emails while at the dinner table.
40% still do work e-mail after 10pm.
69% will not go to sleep without checking their work email. – San Jose Mercury News/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
book they called a Bible. It said that you need to take off at least one day a week and think about other things. We ignore it at our peril.”
It’s hard to fully relax and lose track of time when reminders are everywhere you look, says Kathleen Kilroy-Marac, an anthropology professor who taught a course on the “Anthropology of Time and Memory” last year at Sarah Lawrence University.
At just six years old, her daughter would often ask, “Are we running late?”
Her college students, too, seem to have internalised the minutes ticking by on their smartphones. They rarely find themselves “lost in the flow of time”, a phrase social scientists use to describe the state of being immersed in a project or daydreaming.
“In a way, there’s a constant awareness of time that produces a sort of anxiety,” says Kilroy-Marac, who is now at the University of Toronto.
She remembers having a much different sense of time when she was growing up. Fond memories of daydreaming while watching telephone poles going by the window of the back-seat of her parents’ car come to mind when she thinks of family vacations.
The digital age that threatened to kill the mechanical watch business instead brought it new life, with brothers Josh (left) and Kris bonifas using their smartphones to keep in touch with the market at all hours of the day – and night too, when servicing clients from around the globe.