Living Through History: Thinking about the meaning of time

Has social distancing and working from home messed up your sense of time? Here are some thoughts from a professor who teaches about the role of the concept of time throughout history.

Jarice Hanson is, among other things, Professor Emerita from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she was a member of the Department of Communication.

On the very first day of Massachusetts’ “Stay At Home Order,” the band on my watch broke. My old EMS watch with the light-up dial wasn’t an expensive one but when I couldn’t wear it on my wrist anymore, I missed it. I put the functioning part of the watch in my pocket and for the next few days I felt a comfort knowing it was there. I found myself tapping my pocket, just to reassure me that my need to know what time it was was still within my reach.

As the days passed, I realized that my sense of time was out of whack. It wasn’t just that we were on spring break at the University of Massachusetts where I teach, or that I didn’t have my watch, but everything around me was changing. My equilibrium was off. In the first few days of the “Stay At Home Order” I checked all of my other devices multiple times a day, whereas I would normally check them twice at the most, usually because of work. My friends kept recommending streaming services that would keep me amused, keep me tied to my computer or cell phone, and made me a passive recipient of streams of news, information, and diversion that sometimes frightened me, sometimes appalled me, and most often, made my mind race with questions such as “how long?; how bad?; when will it end?; when will there be a vaccine?”— and I realized that all my most important questions had to do with the existential question of time.  Because my University closed and shifted to remote teaching/learning for the rest of the semester, I had to focus on converting the course I teach called “Digital Communication and Society” to an online format. The first topic on the syllabus listed for the return after spring break and the shift to online teaching? The role of the concept of time in history.

The last time my class met in a classroom, we talked about how technologies exhibit characteristics that influence our relationship to time, but social indicators like race, class, gender, and age all exert their own pull toward how humans think about what the concept of time means as the seconds and minutes of this world click by. We debated how tech companies structure our attention and keep us hooked on content, thereby creating what we call an “attention economy” and how easy it is to find one “addicted” to the constant streaming presence of personal technologies and social media platforms. We discussed how business and industry incorporate a sense of time for tasks and accountability, and how long it takes our legal system to adjudicate difficult cases like privacy and security in an age of big data and the Internet.   The relationship among technology, social values, and human behavior that shift radically in times of disruption was the focus of the course, and now we were experientially living the theoretical framework of the course.

Studies of the importance of a concept of time – structured by technology or imprinted upon us by the technologies we use – have a long history. Lewis Mumford wrote about the invention of the clock in the fourteenth century and how it structured social behavior of everyone in earshot of the clock chimes, regulating store openings, worship, and social interaction. The telegraph, strung on wires along railroad tracks organized the continental U.S. into four time zones, making commerce and the railroads “run on time.” Telephones, radio and television all erased a sense of space and structured peoples’ time by allowing us to interact with voices and see images from far away, in the comfort of our own homes, and digital technologies like computers, cell phones, and smartphones enabled us to move freely about while not having to worry about time. We say that we can “multitask” and our technologies allow us to be more efficient—but these are convenient excuses for allowing the technologies to control our time.

The current pandemic has pulled the rug out from under us in many ways, but one important feature is to think about how we use the time we now have, and how unsettled we feel when our routines are upended. Many people say it’s taking longer to get things done—which may be true, but at the same time, is it just that when time becomes all we have, do we value it differently?

If my class were in session, I would lock eyes with my students and ask them whether they are conscious of their choices. Do they choose to be distracted by technology or is the technology a means to an end to feel the gratification of being with others, even though so many of us are in isolation? I would pose the critical question of time for those heroic first responders who are racing against time as the virus spreads and we flail around with an outdated supply chain that has its own sense of time. I would ask them whether grocery store clerks, personnel at take-out restaurants, or delivery people have a very different experience of time these days. I would prod them to think about what “just in time” thinking and action means, when we’ve already harnessed time by creating models of peaks and curves, and race to find supplies to meet the numbers we expect to have to serve.

But perhaps most of all, I would try to reinforce for them, as I do myself, how the one constant we’ve explored throughout every life, is the same constant of time that our agricultural forebears experienced. Every day the sun comes up. Every evening the sun goes down. And when we come through this snapshot in the history of the world, will we find the balance we need in the constants that are given to us, or in the behaviors we need to let this time pass?

Even though we may choose to fill our time with certain actions or behaviors, what we all share as human beings, is the sense of time that grounds us all when we need it most. Globally a second, a minute, an hour—are all the same. When we remember that, we find something a little more stable, a little more reliable, and much more profound when we realize that we are all living through history with the same clock.