What is time?

IMG_0971Days and years are natural phenomena. It takes the earth a certain quantity of time to turn on its axis, and to revolve around the sun. Hours and weeks, on the other hand, are very human inventions. Why 7 days and not 5? The 24-hour division of a day (and 60 minute hours and 60 second minutes) is a holdover from the ancient Sumerians, who used base 6 (and some base 10). Our base 10 world could have made better sense of a 10-hour or 100-hour day. In any case, while reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, this past weekend, I was reminded how recently the modern conception of time has arisen. If you are not dealing with people who are physically far from you, precise time doesn’t matter that much. You don’t need an appointment to talk with the people you share a hut with. Likewise, the stonemason down the street can be reached by walking into his workshop. If he’s not there, you wait or come back later. He hasn’t gone far. Hours and minutes and seconds existed but most people didn’t care that much, and the official time on the village clock might differ greatly between locations. Precise measures of time became necessary when railroads began connecting distant towns. People getting on a train in a town 2 hours from London need to know when the train left London, and that the time in their village and London is the same time. Broadcast media later cemented this. If you want to listen to a radio program that comes on at 9:00 P.M., you need to know when that is. This differs from prior versions of entertainment, such as a tribal elder telling a story around a campfire. He will get to that when he gets to that.

Given the human-created nature of hours, minutes, seconds, it can be tempting to think that they don’t matter. All is illusion. On occasion when people want to be deep, they point this out to me, with the message that time management is something akin to figuring out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I agree that it is generally silly to stress over whether a task takes 8 minutes or 10 minutes. Even though I track my time by the half-hour (and have for the past 14 months continuously!) I do like to have stretches of space when I am not looking at the clock. This is one reason I try to leave my phone sitting on my desk, especially on weekends.

However, if many units of time are illusions, they are very useful ones. There are many illusions in the world. Nations, for instance. Harari uses the example of limited liability corporations. If enough people believe in the idea of something, then it takes on a life of its own, and becomes very useful in governing our interactions with each other, and even our interactions with ourselves. Relationships cannot be quantified, but by setting a target of reading with my children for a certain amount each day, I know that I am investing in those relationships. By arranging to meet someone at a certain time, and then holding myself to that agreement, I show I am respecting the person. As long as people have the same illusions, then the fact that they are illusions doesn’t mean they are not worth having. The feelings they create can be real enough to us.

Photo: Flamingos at the Philadelphia Zoo, where we went for Father’s Day. Holidays are another interesting but useful illusion.

5 thoughts on “What is time?

  1. An interesting post … as a mom, I’ve become very struck by just how many instruments we have that tell us the time and how many of those are automated (linked to and updated through an accurate external source of time info.). Obviously the programmed accuracy is in many situations useful, as may the prevalence be , though I’m not truly sure I need my microwave to know the time.

    But. On days when my (young) kid needs to get to bed early, I don’t hesitate to set the clocks somewhat ahead so that he thinks it’s later than it is. Doing this requires that I surreptitiously adjust 6 (!!!) clocks in our home — microwave, oven, alarm clock, my phone, house phone, his music player (which is actually a phone). And that’s ignoring several more (thermometer, 2 analog clocks) that I have taught him are not accurate – which they’re not, though for a variety of reasons), and also requires steering clear of the TV and the computer. Leaves me longing for the days when a church or factory bell would be the only source of time info., and hopefully only at a few key time points.

    Now that my son’s in school and given that we don’t regularly attend church, I have finally worked out that it’s better when we switch off daylight savings time to leave the clocks alone until Sunday night, meaning that instead of losing an hour of sleep on Sunday morning I have a kid hopping out of bed promptly on Monday morning ready to get to school.

    My husband plays and watches a number of sports that run on their own schedule, not a time — golf, pool, baseball being key examples, and relishes telling me when I ask him, “When will you be home from […].” That he’ll be back “once it’s done.” I think it irks him that I now answer his questions about how long I’ll be riding a horse with the same phrase, and that’s led me to wonder how many “women’s” activities have precise end times, and how many “men’s” don’t — but I haven’t studied the issue and don’t know of any studies that do.

    1. @Alexicographer – I’m not sure on such studies. I do think some housework studies have established that men tend to do jobs that can be done at the time of their choice (taking garbage out) vs. those that can’t (meal-making). It may be about protecting time, something like what you’re pointing out with leisure.
      I’ve never changed the clocks but it sounds tempting!

      1. I highly recommend changing the clocks, but it may be trickier with 4 kids! Though mine is about the same age as your oldest, so perhaps do-able.

  2. My husband refuses to change the time on the clock in his car, which is old enough for it not to change automatically. He says it is right half the year and he knows the rest of the time that it’s not, but it drives me mad. Also how much time is collectively wasted across the world changing clocks twice a year, which arguably now so few people work on the land, we all have electricity in the developed world etc, is not strictly necessary. I have about 15 clocks to change at home including such things as central heating timers, and getting them synchronised is a real hassle. And putting the clocks back in the autumn is SO depressing! My campaign to stay on one time all year starts here!

    1. @KatherineB – so I’m kind of with your husband on that one. I tend not to change the clock in my car, and it’s 6 minutes fast. So for part of the year it is an hour and 6 minutes off. But since I know it is an hour and 6 minutes off, it does not bother me.

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