The il­lu­sion of time

Tech­nol­ogy gives us more time, and less.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By KATY MUR­PHY

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

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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.

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