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Tallis in Wonderland

A Hasty Report From A Tearing Hurry

Raymond Tallis has a measured response to numbered seconds.

“And strangers were as brothers to his clocks”
W.H. Auden

Readers of this column will know that I am committed to snatching time from the jaws of physics; in particular to rescuing it from a reduction to a quasi-spatial dimension and its further reduction to numbers. Thus reduced, time becomes a mere variable – t – that has no qualities, only numerical values, and none of the features that make it central to human life. For example, little t, unlike time as we experience it, has no tenses. The difference between (say) a regretted past and an anticipated future is lost in t.

I could go on about the poverty of t, but I won’t, because I am also aware that in demoting t I might overlook something rather extraordinary: the mysterious verb ‘to time’. While all beings (pebbles, trees, monkeys etc) are in some sense ‘in’ time – immersed or perhaps dissolved in it – we humans are alone in timing what happens – including (or especially) timing what happens to our very lives. We portion time into days, and number days, and parts of days, and know that our days are numbered. One striking illustration of this is that of all the occupants of the Solar System – rocks, trees, lemurs, etc – we alone use the relative movements of the Solar System’s components to organise our own commitments. What a delicious piece of cheek to appropriate the rotation of the Earth round the Sun to instruct us when to do what – for example, when to have our Christmas dinner. To vary a saying of Douglas Adams: “Time is mysterious; tea-time doubly so.”

So we should not allow objections to the reduction of time to little t to allow us to overlook the mysterious activity of ‘timing’, or the extraordinary truth that despite the gap between lived and measured time, measuring it has enabled us (via science and technology) to extend, protect, enrich and enhance our existence – indeed, to have the time of our lives. “Measurement began our might” as the poet William Yeats said: it extended our powers beyond anything that could be imagined by our pre-numerate ancestors.

Deep Time Thoughts

Timing has not only enabled us to see more of how the material world works so that we can work on it, or with it, more effectively; it has also greatly extended our temporal gaze. In recent centuries, we have come to situate ourselves in ‘deep time’: the time revealed by archaeologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists and astrophysicists. Thus we locate ourselves in a span of time that exceeds the duration of our lives by billions of years, and the duration of the species to which we belong by not much less. The measurement that has made us collectively mighty has created a mirror in which we see ourselves as individually, existentially small – a tendency I criticised in my previous column (‘You Chemical Scum, You’).

Yet the sense, implicit in the verb ‘to time’, of accessing time directly, is confusing, and leads to the deeply questionable notion that clocks measure ‘the passage of time’ – something to which we shall return on another occasion. Instead, let us glance now at another aspect of timing – also easily overlooked – which becomes more apparent as timepieces become more sophisticated. It is that we note ‘the time’ at a time. So I note that it is 4:30 at 4:30: “I looked at the clock at 4:30 and saw that it was 4:30.” This underlines the extent to which, as timers, we both stand outside of time and are immersed in it. To know that it is 4:30 is to be at 4:30, and also to be looking on 4:30 as if from a temporal outside. So in subjecting time to timing, we seem to have succeeded in stepping to one side of time in some respect, while of course, remaining in it.

So, while we are pulling time out of the jaws of physics, we must not forget what an amazing, and deeply puzzling, activity ‘timing’ is. And its consequences are immeasurable. It transforms social life into a multi tude of intermeshing ensembles harmonised by timepieces. We watch time and time watches us; and the portability of the watch compared with, say, the obelisk, locks together the watching and the watched more intimately. Inside these ever more tightly drawn temporal meshes, the clock rules our every moment. The living rhythms spelt out in our breathing, our walking and our beating hearts, are overridden by something totally different, symbolised by the way the watch we consult with fast-beating heart clasps our wrist, seeming to strangle our pulse. We dance to a rhythm of the shared day, of the common world, of the universe, that’s imposed and embraced: it is ours and not ours.

This is not all bad, of course. Our lives are vastly enriched by keeping track of the time, and we are collectively and individually empowered by co-ordination: dancing to the music of clock time, we can work together more effectively to meet and anticipate our basic needs, to generate ever more complex ways of exploiting nature, and to erect defences against a universe that has no particular care for us. And we must not underestimate what an extraordinary achievement this is. To take a salient example: the operating theatre. There is the surface orchestration of the lives of all the experts (surgeons, nurses, technicians, anaesthetists, cleaners, and engineers) necessary to make the procedure happen safely. But beneath the task of getting them all to the operating theatre at the right time, there is an almost bottomless infrastructure of temporally co-ordinated life.

Think of the engineer responsible for making sure the complex machinery in the theatre works, at the right time. He has to arrive on time, and his journey will have involved a multitude of conductors of his private orchestra of activities – ranging from the alarm clock he set to wake him up, to the traffic lights whose efficient, centrally-regulated working made sure that he was not held up forever in jammed traffic. His assumption of his present post as hospital engineer will also be the end stage of a long journey that has depended on meeting with others at pre-set times. His skills, for example, will have involved a multitude of people whose tabled time, set out in a curriculum, will have meshed with his, so that he was able to benefit from their expertise. The equipment on which he learned his skills, either directly or as illustrations of principles, had to be manufactured, tested, delivered, maintained and demonstrated by an endless army of individuals turning up on time and timing their activities to fit in with the activities of others (including the activity of timing the performance of the machinery). The equipment will itself have a multitude of components based on clocks, visible and hidden, created by other clock-watchers on physical principles whose discovery and application and commercialisation involved yet more armies of clock-drilled people. At every point in his life, our theatre engineer will have been borne up by myriads of clock-conducted fellows.

Time for Tyranny

This is a beneficent example. There are other less heart-warming instances of the consequences of temporal orchestration. The gigantic torture chamber that is North Korea is an extreme instance of how the imposed brotherhood of clocks can subordinate individual life entirely to a collective existence where each is reduced to an atom in a pattern of power servicing the needs of a small elite. And the scale of the catastrophic wars of recent centuries would not have been possible without clocks to bring men and materiel together on a giant scale, permitting destruction to be both precise and ubiquitous. The synchronies which enhance our ability to realise our collective power and knowledge – and which enhance that collective power with our ever-increasing collective knowledge, unifying greater numbers of us with ever closer and denser connections – make it possible to hurt each other with appallingly enhanced efficiency. As time gets further from subjective experience, goes further from our beating hearts, heartlessness may install itself in the heart of our world.

There are also lesser woes that may follow from keeping time. The kitchen clock, my watch, the pips from the radio peeping the hour, preside over my hurry, your hurry, the hurry of widening rings of friends and strangers who soften and domesticate the infinite hard clockwork of the universe. Thus our orchestrated lives may be being emptied even as they are being enriched. The ever-greater efficiency of an ever-more-intimately-clocked world adds to our opportunities, but it also drives a positive feedback cycle in which we demand more of the world and the world demands more of us. This quickening of pace is evident in every aspect of our lives. We supplement the treadmill of work with a treadmill of pleasure – hurry seems to be a constant condition, even if the hurry is to catch a plane to go on holiday, to arrive at a concert on time, or to honour an engagement whose sole purpose is for a casual get-together. We are forever on the edge of being late, and any dereliction in this respect causes us anguish: we are mortified, and the others are impatient.

So as we seem to get a grip on time via numbers, time gets an ever-tighter grip on us. We are like Gulliver in Lilliput, pinned to the ground by a multitude of chronological threads, notwithstanding that our hastes become more manic and our passage from one thing to the next is an increasingly fluid slide.

Future Continuous

The tyranny of the clock extends to our future. The calendar on the wall prescribes what is going to (or ought to) happen. Our days are mortgaged weeks, months and years ahead. A phone call on the morning of November 12th 2010 commits the afternoon of July 14th 2012. The future we may not even live to see is populated with constraining possibilities, with shared intentions that are mutual obligations.

The newer forms of communication not only permit an instantaneity of response, they seem to demand it. Others expect immediate or continuous availability, and we expect this of others. We are electronically skewered by emails, texts, cellphone calls. Our lives are co-ordinated, shaped, even filled, by the heavens – not by the stars, but by orbiting satellites. As we ‘communicate’ more electronically, we seem to communicate less. This paradox symptomatizes what is happening more generally: that, as we travel faster and our journeys are increasingly effortless, so we seem to travel lighter, indeed to become lighter. We are attenuated – or, as I have described it, ‘e-ttenuated’. The inability fully to experience our experiences, except when those experiences are unpleasant (hunger, cold, pain, terror, grief) becomes ever more evident. We have to look to boredom to restore to time its weight, so that time hangs heavily.

So while we are rescuing time from the jaws of physics, we might spare a little time to think how we might rescue ourselves from the machinery of clocks – while still, of course, honouring our responsibilities in an increasingly closely clocked human world, and being duly respectful of what we ‘timers’ have achieved. Thinking about the mystery of time; of timing; and yes, of the body of knowledge that is physics, all seemingly transilluminating the material world, may be a place to start. But I can’t start now because – My God, is that the time!!!! – I’ve got to email this article to the editor.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2012

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet, broadcaster and novelist. His latest book In Defence of Wonder is just out from Acumen.

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