Are We Losing Our Sense of Time?
Humans (as Homo Sapiens) are thought to have existed on planet Earth for roughly 200,000 to 300,000 years. It has been a mere 700 years since we first began to mechanically measure time, and only 165 years since we universally organised ourselves under a single version of time known as the standard time of clocks.
Prior to the invention /mass production / global adoption of a synchronised standard time we would have experienced a very different sense of time. Our ancient ancestors navigated time using the immediate natural world as their primary time keeping systems. By observing and recording the rhythms of the rising and setting sun, the cycles of the moon, the movements of the stars and the changing seasons we learned to evolve a sense of time in direct harmony with nature. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and a rapidly decoupling of our own sense of time from natures time.
What of our sense of time might we have we lost?
Time is not just an immutable constant, as Newton supposed, but a cluster of concepts, events, and rhythms covering an extremely wide range of phenomena. Looking at what people actually do (in contrast to what they write and say when theorising) one quickly discovers a wide discrepancy between time as it is lived and time as it is considered.
— Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Time, 1984
One means of understanding what, of our sense of time, might have been lost with the standardisation of time is to unpack what we currently understand of time. Time, as we know it, can broadly be sub-divided into three states; physical time, biological time and psychological time.
Time as a system
If we now view these three states of time as systems (a set of things working together as parts of a interconnecting network) we begin to expose the seismic shift in our sense of time that standard time has brought about. Considering time as a system we can begin to appreciate the current view of time contained within Physical Time as a closed system — in comparison to biological and physical time which both exist as open systems. Indeed, it has been the ability of standard time to holistically isolate itself from all external influences which has facilitated its ability to become THE universal measure of time. The clock of standard time ticks on entirely regardless of its environment.
And here began the loss. Our sense of time, like our other senses, was for hundreds of thousands of years an immediate and natural interpretation of the world around us. We were directly connected to the world through, and in, time. The porous edges of biological and psychological time allowed us to ‘feel the time’ we lived in, rather than merely to ‘know the time’. Our temporal intelligence evolved as a direct reflection of the natural environment in which we inhabited. Time was nature, and nature was time.
The dawn of time as we know it, the twilight of time as we feel it
The age of the Industrial Revolution replaced our evolved temporal intelligence with the modern ‘purpose’ of time - accuracy. Accuracy allowed us to efficiently navigate our world (through the accurate calculation of longitude), then it migrated from ship to the railways (through the accurate scheduling of timetables in time zones) and finally it saturated just about all other forms of human activity, social ritual, communication, financial exchange, and technological progress (through accurate social alignment). And so time as we know it became a single and universal translation of time hermetically sealed within standard time.
And yet we have not completely lost our sense of time, maybe it has just been temporarily forgotten. The boundaries of biological and psychological time are still just as porous as they once were, maybe now even more than ever. Beyond our need for accuracy in interpersonal organisation we each remain as organisms capable of surviving, if not thriving, deep within the domains of inaccuracy. Indeed it is only our reliance upon mechanical extensions of selfthat provides us with accuracy, our natural senses primarily feed us blurred approximates and speculative assumptions.
Let us take an example to illustrate the conflicts and interdependencies between these states of time.
Ignoring our sense of time
On June 29, 2007 Apple revealed the first-generation iPhone to the world. The subsequent adoption of smartphones was exponential, and it wasn’t long until the majority of the western world was holding a glowing screens to their face for increasingly long periods of the day. We had created, and inhabited, a world of ever-present (day)light.
It wasn’t until around 2013 that studies began to recognise the negative implications of exposure to smartphone screen light upon our internal biological and psychological clocks. The paradigm of physical time, an absolute and universal standardisation born of mass production, began to feel the tectonic shifts as it grated with the reality of biological time and psychological time.
Re-finding our sense of time
It was only with the release of iOS 9.3 in March 2016, nearly a full decade after the iPhone’s first introduction, that Apple sought to rectify the obvious conflict between the blue light of technology and our bodies natural alignment to the sun’s colour temperature spectrum. An elementary understanding of photosynthesis and circadian rhythms highlights the influence of light upon every organisms natural oscillation. The iPhone attempted to override evolution by consistently feeding cold blue light (associated with daylight) directly into our retina through day and night (when natural light would otherwise diffuses to warm reds and yellows). As iPhone use increased, so to did an epidemic of insomnia that highlighted the growing disjuncture between our technology and our core biological and psychological systems.
Apple’s iOS feature Night Shift now offers the ability to change the colour temperature of the display towards the yellowish part of the colour spectrum at the users request. A considered alignment between physical time and biological and psychological time has now been (forced) into place.
This shift has now, seemingly, ignited a new fire in Apple’s own temporal intelligence. It’s latest MacOS operating system, to be released in Autumn 2018, will feature two additional new features aligned to biological and psychological time. Dark Mode allows users to ‘focus’ on their work through a subtle use of light reminiscent of the moon in the nights sky.
While Dynamic Desktop mirrors the natural light and colour changes we naturally perceive over the course of a day and night. While both features seem extremely stunted progressions to a technology that has long since dominated the majority of attention and lives, they are welcome signs of a sophisticated understanding of our complex sense of time. Further still these basic features begin to expose the atemporal nature of our natural interpretation of time, the elements of our temporal perception that exist within us (often unconsciously), independent and unaffected by the immediate time with have come to accept as the present.
Reimagining our Temporal Intelligence
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
— Albert Einstein, 1929
So where might be next for our understanding of time if these examples only hint of the opportunities and new temporal territories available to us beyond the limits of the closed system of physical time? Or more precisely might we be capable of imagining other means of inhabiting time beyond physical time?
We can not escape time, but we can transcend it. The time machines of fiction are likely to remain as such. The machinery of time that we wear on our wrists, display on walls, and permanently resides at the top our computers screens could soon allow us to consciously traverse time in ways previously unimagined or unimaginable. Indeed, it is our individual and collective imagination that may offer us the time machines we have always desire. Einstein famously realised the existence of general relativity by imagining himself riding upon a lightwave across the universe.
Re-finding and refining our sense of time
We might soon be able to increasingly unbind ourselves from the ruling class of a singular temporal closed system, and increasingly occupy open systems of temporality. Not only does the naturally porous nature of biological and psychological time make such emancipation possible, it is arguably the primary purpose of our unique place in time to push at the boundaries of this most complex of dimensions. Through observing times passage with tools, by measuring its patterns in conceptual models, and by narrating times events in stories that travel beyond the small pocket of time inhabited by any single individual (in order to form a shared memory of knowledge and imagination).
We still have vast unknown temporal frontiers ahead of us, waiting to be explored and experienced. There remains a very real possibility that those frontiers might exist beyond what we currently know of time, and may well exist within -or originate through- our natural sense of time.
The above text represents ‘thought in progress’ associated with the project sense of time, a new collaboration between King’s College London’s Department of Philosophy and artist Ted Hunt, brokered and supported by the Cultural Institute at King’s in partnership with Somerset House Studios.
For more of Ted Hunt’s essays, follow this link.