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For The Times, They Are A-Changin'...

By Allan Eastman

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Is Time Flying?

Display stock market charts in a street at night

Stock traders work not only across the entire clock but across all the world’s geography as well. Displayed above is the stock market charts in a public street.

©iStockphoto.com/Nikada

Time management was the very foundation of life as we moved into modern times. It seemed like there was one brief Golden Age resulting from the whole process – the post World War II era in the west. This basically middle class society seemed to have inherited all the rewards that the Protestant Ethic had promised. There were beautiful suburban homes full of labor saving devices, personal automobiles, even the new wonder - the black and white television - holding pride of place in the family living room. Food was plentiful and there was the promise of a genteel retirement after one’s labors on some golden beach under the swaying palm fronds. Or so the TV commercials said. This quality of life was transmitted to the rest of the world via movies and television and became a dream of something to aspire to for those not already possessing it.

Time in human life may have become more organized and more demanding – apparently more stressful if you look at the widespread use of medicinal tranquilizers by the gray flannel suits and their Stepford wives in the 1950’s - but it was still linear, durational Time. Even with the advances of speed and a more complex, demanding schedule, the patterns of life still followed the older rhythms – living in one location, working during the day, relaxing with the family in the evenings, bed at night. Careers were measured as a part of a fulfilling lifetime. Futurists predicted that in the decades ahead, people would work considerably less hours and that more of their life would be devoted to “leisure time”.

Well, we all know how that worked out. About the same as those personal flying cars we were all supposed to get.

Technology continued its relentless forward development and human life continued to accelerate along with it. And eventually, it would really transform our relationships with Time. Speed and stress became the twin features of this new world.

Use of jet airplanes became common in the 1960’s and a new phenomenon immediately appeared with it – jet lag. The high speed velocity of jet planes allowed a person to quickly move from one continent to the other but it turned out that the body and mind could not cope with such a rapid transition across the world’s time zones. Attuned to its own natural cycles of light and dark, of sleep and wakefulness, the body’s sudden wrenching into another distant time zone when these cycles were thrown out of whack caused disorientation, confusion, fatigue and even, sickness. Jet lag was an early symptom of what was to come – a symbol of the ill effects of speed and stress.

Modern electronic communications – television, microwave towers, satellites – began to create a realistic International World for the first time. Soon, business was no longer an 8 hour shift in one location - it became a 24 hour a day job. The most extreme example of this, these days, are the stock traders in New York City who not only must deal with their own 9 to 5 transactions, but keep track of the markets in Asia and in Europe during their own night time hours. They work not only across the entire clock but across all the world’s geography as well. Their bodies may be in one place but their minds are in many. Sleep is a low priority.

Modern societies began to reflect these changes of work patterns, keeping ever longer hours. The all night convenience store became a necessity for milk, bread and cigarettes. Shops started to keep later hours and eventually opened on traditional days of rest. “Sunday Shopping” is a novelty when it first appears but soon becomes just another part of normal life. The promised increased leisure time never appears – instead people have to work longer hours both to keep up and to succeed in their professions. A tightly scheduled life becomes an imperative to keep up with everything.

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All this tight scheduling soon intrudes into what used to be thought of as one’s personal time as well. The only way that people can cope is to apply the processes of one’s working life to home and family as well. Children’s extra-curricular activities have to be carried out within this harried timetable – ballet at 5 o’clock, swimming at 6:30, supper at 7:45. “Quality Time” must be scheduled, not lived. Fast Food becomes one of the greatest growth industries. Time becomes less linear, more fragmented into a mosaic of disconnected segments.

People begin losing touch with the cycles of Time that have always characterized human lives. Psychiatrists report on ever increasing breakdowns and neuroses due to people’s skyrocketing stress over their inability to cope with everything they have to accomplish in their 24/7 lives. They are the victims of Time. The Protestant Ethic loses much of its appeal – people become suspicious of “progress”, there is much talk about what is the point of working so hard when it ultimately makes one so unhappy. All of our ever busy activities become uncoupled from any set of values that justify them to our satisfaction. We are on Time’s treadmill now and the best and the worst is yet to come.

There is a real revolution in the 1980’s as electronics go digital. Personal computers start to make their widespread appearance. Huge advances in technology begin to speed the processes of life ever faster even as they miniaturize the equipment. Cellular telephones go from being basically a car battery with a handset to a small, powerful, multifunctional, handheld device in less than a decade. The World Wide Web expands at an exponential rate with more and more information of every kind coming on line every nanosecond. Digital television bumps the number of TV channels at your disposal from a handful to literally hundreds. Cable news brings the current War live into your living room as it happens. There is no way that any one individual can keep in touch with all the information available. But many try.

These technological changes, with their attendant explosion of information, fundamentally transform our relationship with Time. Our interaction with these useful electronic marvels deconstructs linear Time and in its place, imposes on us a kind of constant, simultaneous, ever renewing Present. And our expectations change as well. The interval between desire and fulfilment becomes near instantaneous; we want to talk to Sybil - push a button on the cell phone, we need to know the GDP of Cambodia – browse the web, we want to hear a song – hit shuffle on your iPod. Humans come to expect instant gratification.

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