Time Will Tell

“These eight years went fast,” my father said to me on my eight birthday. “The next eight will go twice as fast, and the next twice as fast as that, this way your whole life.”

Staring at the dust on my new cowboy boots, I remember feeling confused and embarrassed, the way I always did when he wanted to tell me something about Life. I didn’t exactly understand him, but from then on, I measured my life in eight-year segments.

I understand him now, having lived through many of those multiples of eight. Most people my age understand it: somewhere in our twenties or thirties, time begins to accelerate—so that while once an hour was too long to practice the piano or wait until dinner, it is now hardly long enough to get ready in the morning, or to have a civilized conversation. While a summer once held time still, one endless noon stretching from morning till night, the period now feels like a weekend—we do our laundry, see the family, do some work—and it’s time to go to teach again in September.

There are probably biological reasons for this, reports Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars, having to do with our metabolism changing as we age. Slower time perception is wasted on children: at eight, I was so impatient to grow up, I wanted time to move at double-speed, starting right then.

Rifkin also suggests that industrialization sped time up, as people moved from sun time to clock time, and now clock time to computer time. If the Benedictine monks hadn’t invented the clock to get them to the eight separate services that punctuated their day, early industrialists would have—textile mills were the first places to regulate work by the clock, a tyranny which prevailed.

Computers are what Rifkin thinks have sped up time for us as a people—the pace of video games, of information transfer. But I think before most people had computers, digital clocks had already done the damage. For all clocks may have regimented our lives, they at least have a face like our own, and hands. Wrapped in a towel, they reassure a sleeping puppy, or an infant remembering the muffled tick-tock. They support a human sense of time, a continuous sweep, not numbered segments.

When you look at a face clock, you know what time it is not only exactly but generally—how far into the morning it is, points out Betsy Wootten, a steno pool supervisor. She says she translates digital time—9:56—into clock time: “a little before ten.” Digital clocks, she says, “are so exact they’re abrasive.” With an ordinary clock, you cannot tell exactly what time it is, unless the hand is on a number. Distinguishing 10:12 from 10:13 requires so much attention that it will be 10:13 in the time it takes to figure it out. Digital clocks give you no grace period: you can see it is 10:13 and you are already late.

With the digital clocks, we lose a metaphor and a reference point: counter-clockwise is the best way to explain how to open a jar or what the quickest way is around the building to the bathroom. Clocks are how we explain the length of time people have been on the planet—if we describe the existence of the earth as a twenty-four hour day, humans appeared ninety seconds before midnight, Richard Emanuel wrote in Science Notes.

Clocks are the metaphor for how close world affairs have brought us to annihilation: six minutes to midnight. From the beginning, clocks were monuments, gathering places (the town clock), heirlooms (father’s railroad watch), furniture (a grandfather clock), jewelry—making the necessary beautiful. You could say we celebrated our enslavement: you could also say we appropriated it.

It was banks, appropriately enough, who first used digital clocks in public places, for if time is money, digital time even looks like money: $10.13.

But what I object to most about digital clocks is not the way they look, their green eyes glowing in the dark like predators, or the ominous crystalline whisper of the numbers changing. What I object to most is not their gracelessness, the square digits, the irascible dot matrix, or even their pedantic precision. It is the way they press time’s passing.

Most of us have an internal clock that tells us how long five minutes is, or an hour, one that varies depending on the task or our mood—or, as Rifkin explains, on how cold we are. Time seems to go faster as our body temperature drops (perhaps an evolutionary gift to help people in cold countries through the winter). Our internal perception of time keeps the shortness of life at a distance: if we had a digital timer on the wall clicking off our allocated years, we would be frantic.

Instead, babies seem to be babies forever until suddenly they are not; childhood is timeless until children go to college and we are no longer young. By accenting sequence, digital clocks implicitly number our days. Time ceases to be a circle, but a countdown. Electronic timers intensify the pressure. Microwaves tell us how long 25 seconds is when we reheat our coffee—about enough time to put away the filters. Microwave popcorn takes exactly three minutes 44 seconds—barely enough time to put a load of wash in. In movie theatres or in meetings, other people’s beepers go off in fifteen minute or half-hour intervals, as Wootten points out, so we are never fully in the present, but always conscious of time passing. It is easy to see how, if we lose almost four minutes of our lives putting in the wash, or nine fifteen-minute segments at a movie, life is eaten up.

Instead of the perpetual present of daily life, timed fragments rush us toward death. While clocks may indeed have been designed so that some people could control other people’s labor, as Rifkin points out, with digital clocks and timers, time is out of everyone’s hands. In the beep are implicit commands: Take out the popcorn. Go to your next meeting. Your time is up. Where once an alarm interrupted us once a day, it now speaks to us regularly, intrusive as schoolbells.

We are fractured, scheduled, interruptable, at the service of our own inventions, of a force not even as human as a boss or as redemptive as the weather. With digital clocks, time tells us—not only what we do, but what we are.