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Appreciating the diversity and evolution of cultural and scientific views of time—linear time and cyclical time—requires a wide-ranging journey through history to consider how diverse cultures conceived of and measured time. The interplay between the practical ability to measure time with clocks and the abstract concept of time itself is major theme of this research paper.
We all live in time, but we almost never ask ourselves about its nature. Moreover, people in the industrialized West are generally unaware that their typical understanding of time embodies a set of assumptions (for example, a linear “flow”) that have changed throughout history, are not shared by all cultures, and are even fundamentally at odds with current science.
Cultural Understandings of Time
There are as many conceptions of time as there have been human cultures, but it is common to identify two kinds of time. First, there is linear time, a steady progression from the distant past to the far future. For some, this view is based on Christianity, in which time has a both a beginning at Creation and an end at Christ’s second coming; for others, it is based on science, assuming a steady evolution both of knowledge and of life itself. Second, there is cyclical time, where the recurring motions of a clock or the stars do not merely mark off constant intervals, but indicate a repetition of human experience and history. A division between linear and cyclical is nevertheless overly simplistic, just as it would be to identify the linear with the West and the cyclical with the East. There is instead a continuum of emphasis, so that for example early Chinese writings identify both ji, the linear succession from ancestors to descendants, and li, repetitive cycles of death and rebirth in the natural world.
Both linear and cyclical time can be seen in any calendar, which reveals not merely the calculations by which a society numbers days and years but also something of how that society understands time itself. For example, the development of the Gregorian calendar is a fascinating thread through history, in which priorities, arguments, and human decisions are revealed in every detail: the names of the months, the date of Easter, and the contortions needed to keep synchrony with the orbit of the Earth. The Mayan calendar intricately interlocks a multitude of cycles, including the 365-day haab (the seasonal year) and the 260-day tzolkin (itself composed of overlapping cycles of 13 and 20 days), and lists auspicious and ill-fated days for a recurring round of secular and sacred tasks. Indian calendars compose an escalating hierarchy of scales in which a single day in the life of Brahma, the creator god, is equal to almost nine million human years.
Finally, we may also identify a third kind of time, common to many indigenous peoples including those of Australia, North America, and the Arctic. These cultures are often seen as timeless, sometimes on simplistic linguistic grounds. Yet their time may be strictly more intricate than clock time, incorporating a detailed understanding of natural cycles but adding social, spatial, spiritual, and even eternal dimensions.
The Value of Time
Early agrarian and seafaring communities were based on a daily and yearly round of chores governed by the land or the sea. There was little need for external or absolute time, only for the knowledge of the appropriate succession of tasks and of the cues to match this sequence to natural rhythms: sowing and harvesting or the ebb and flow of the tides. The duration of an interval was likewise reckoned not in hours, minutes, and seconds but by comparison with common experience: the time taken to boil an egg, say a prayer, or perform a bodily function—for instance a “pissing while—a somewhat arbitrary measurement” (Thompson 1991, 356).
It is often assumed that public time consciousness began with the medieval “hours” of European monastic communities. This daily cycle of liturgical offices was announced by the ringing of bells, and may have been an important influence in the development of the mechanical clock. But hours originated with the Egyptians, who first divided night and day into twelve parts each. The monks only inherited this convention by way of the Greeks and the Romans, both of which used sundials and clepsydrae (water clocks) to order their society. Even the modern complaint against the tyranny of the clock is not new: “The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours. Confound him, too, who in this place set up a sundial, to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions!” (Titus Maccius Plautus, c. 254–184 BCE).
There were three key factors in the escalation of time pressure through Western-led industrialization. The first was the development of labor as a commodity, which ascribed a new value to every hour of work for both employer and employee, and created a new distinction between work and personal time. The second was the proliferation of clocks and watches; by the end of the seventeenth century, timepieces were shifting from a luxury affordable only by the wealthy to a convenience available to all. The third factor was the rise of a work ethic which set a moral, commercial, and even theological value on industry and deprecated idleness. Benjamin Franklin most famously and succinctly stated this as “Time is money”: not only is time a currency which we choose how to spend, but wasted time is unearned money. Nevertheless, one might argue even in the modern age that this sentiment enshrines a capitalist, predominantly masculine view of time, and undervalues the continuing task-oriented round of domestic daily chores often carried out by women.
From Solar Time to Coordinated Universal Time
As late as the turn of the nineteenth century, the only time that mattered was local time. Every town had its own time: solar noon, when the sun is highest, shifts around one minute later for every twelve miles moved to the west (at the latitude of London). Moreover, this apparent solar time varies through the year because of the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis, sometimes in front of and sometimes behind regular clock time.
The shift away from the sun as primary timekeeper began at the turn of the eighteenth century with the adoption of mean solar time (averaging out the variations of apparent solar time with a clock) and accelerated with the spread of the railways. Before rail, only mail couriers traveled far enough in a single day to encounter the variety of local times. The railway age brought the advent of rapid public travel, timetables, and telegraph cables beside the tracks, providing both motive and means for time to be standardized along the line. Railway companies disseminated their own standards, which were quickly taken up by public clocks; formal adoption of a single standard for legal purposes lagged decades behind. The situation was especially complicated in countries such as the United States, which had many competing interests and a wide geographical expanse.
We are so accustomed to time zones today that it is hard to understand the fierce debate engendered by their proposal as companies and cities fought for commercial and political supremacy. Charles Dowd, an educator from Wisconsin, proposed a zone system for U.S. railways in 1872, but it was not until 1883 that a proposal by William Allen, a U.S. senator, was finally adopted (smaller Britain had adopted Greenwich time much earlier, in 1840). Sandford Fleming, a Scottish-Canadian inventor and engineer, argued in 1876 for worldwide rationalization, setting out the key features of the system we use today. Inevitably, the same battles were fought as fiercely between nations, culminating in the Prime Meridian Conference of 1884, which adopted an international system of standard time zones, but more crucially selected Greenwich as the prime or reference meridian. It is well documented that commerce largely dictated this choice, in particular the dominance of shipping charts based on Greenwich, which harkened back to the seventeenth century, when British astronomers and clockmakers vied to solve the problem of determining longitude at sea.
In the twentieth century, ever more precise clocks began to reveal that the Earth’s rotation was not completely regular. The first atomic clocks were developed in the 1950s, and in 1967 the international definition of the second was changed so that the cesium atom is now our primary timekeeper. Coordinated Universal Time is the modern descendant of Greenwich Mean Time, but refers instead to an international network of atomic clocks. Today we know the time without ever looking at the sun; we encounter jet lag as we fly from one time zone to another; and we know not only the time here but the time there: we know when the stock market opens in New York or in Tokyo and the difference between clocks in London and Paris.
From Absolute to Relative Time
Study of the relationship between time and motion extends at least as far back as Greek philosophy. For example, to Plato time was “the moving image” of an ideal static eternity, manifested in and even brought into being by the motion of celestial bodies. Aristotle questioned this identity, seeing time rather as a “numbering” of motion, dependent on perception of change. Augustine, drawing on this tradition, suggested that this perception implies a human observer, who by memory and expectation may circumvent the apparent fact that only the present is in any sense real.
With the invention of the mechanical clock, the regular motion of the heavens could be represented in miniature—figuratively, but also directly, as public clocks by the late fourteenth century might also elaborately display the phase of the moon or the movement of the planets. It is then only a short step to a view of the whole universe as a clockwork machine, put forward for example by Kepler and Boyle and a key feature of the seventeenth century scientific revolution. Newton, developing the views of Isaac Barrow, famously stated at the beginning of Principia that “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” Both the stars and the clock merely count off the flow of this absolute time, which may be represented geometrically by a straight timeline with each point a single instant.
Leaving aside philosophical disputes, Newton’s definition survived unchallenged for over two hundred years, until Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity begins with two postulates: physical laws should not depend on any motion of the observer, and the speed of light is the same for all observers. The second jars with everyday experience: as a car accelerates away from a standstill, its speed over the ground increases but the speed of the light from its headlights does not. It also has far-reaching consequences. Imagine that you are standing in the center of a stadium, and I am running past you just as the lights are turned on. You see all the lights turn on at the same time—a little after they actually did, because their light takes time to reach you. But in this time I have moved towards one side of the stadium. I see that side turn on first, because that light travels a shorter distance to me at the same constant speed. A third person running past you in a different direction experiences events in a different order again. The profound message of relativity is that relative motion—one observer moving relative to another—unavoidably leads to relative time, with no unique, correct, or absolute order of events.
Relativity has still stranger consequences. Time passes at a slower rate for a moving observer; if one of two twins takes a rocket trip, he will be younger than his brother when he returns, and the faster he travels the less he will age. Time similarly slows as gravity increases, so that clocks tick slower on the ground than they do in orbit. These bizarre predictions of Einstein’s theory have been verified to extraordinary accuracy by experiment, and they even impact on modern life: for the Global Positioning System to provide accurate navigation, the satellite atomic clocks must be corrected for these effects.
Scales of Time
Science has revolutionized our understanding of the scale of time as well as its nature. In antiquity, anything shorter than a heartbeat was the realm of philosophy, anything longer than a lifetime that of history, religion, or myth; both were inaccessible. Authors of medieval computus texts (notably Bede, the Benedictine monk) speculated on the smallest part into which a day might be divided, but were principally concerned with calculating the date of Easter. At the other end of the scale, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh deduced around 1650 that the universe was created in 4004 BCE on Saturday 23 October at 6 P.M. Other cultures incorporated much longer epochs in their chronology, for example the Mayan and Indian cycles already noted, but these figures were largely simple mathematical progressions of shorter-scale calendars.
Today the range of time intervals open to direct study has widened dramatically. Modern technology slices time ever finer: races are timed to thousandths of a second, atomic clocks are synchronized across the globe to billionths of a second, and the fastest laser pulses open a window to timescales shorter than one femtosecond (a millionth of a billionth of a second). In the realm of “deep time,” the age of the Universe is believed to be around thirteen billion years, of the Earth around four and a half billion years, and of our hominid ancestors over seven million years (this is still much discussed as new fossils are found). These figures draw on advances in geology, palaeontology, astronomy, and cosmology, which were only refined through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the late nineteenth century, researchers began trying to understand the biological processes that embody our personal consciousness of time. Great progress has been made in characterizing human biological cycles, including the well-known circadian rhythms that have a period of approximately one day, and using this knowledge to advantage; for example, the effectiveness of drug treatments can vary significantly with the time of day. Cellular and physiological processes that underpin a multitude of personal “clocks” are yielding their secrets, including mechanisms for synchronizing body functions with the environment (a built-in clock) and a separate interval timer for estimating elapsed duration (a built-in stopwatch). Neurological research can identify the areas of the brain that are important for human memory, whereby both the time stamp attached to a specific event and the chronological sequence based on these time stamps can be stored and retrieved.
Nevertheless, a real understanding of human time consciousness—particularly the great variation in the rate at which we can experience the subjective passage of time—remains elusive. It is also particularly ironic that these new insights come at a time when for many life is increasingly separated from natural cycles: for example, shift work, twenty-four-hour shopping, and even air-conditioning or electric lighting all blur our link to environmental time.
The rate of improvement in our ever-advancing ability to measure time is roughly exponential. The day is the same length now as it ever was (at least, to a very good approximation), but accelerating social change makes time seem in shorter supply and consequently much more precious. Many authors argue that a kind of liberation from slavery to clock time is needed, repeating a challenge heard as early as Roman times and which has frequently recurred through history and literature since then.
Clocks underpin much of our modern infrastructure, from telecommunications to electricity distribution to electronic trading to satellite navigation. We take for granted a technical mastery over time, yet time is ultimately as much of a mystery as ever. As sociologist Michael Young (1998, 245) put it, “We can delude ourselves that we know what time is because we know what time it is.” The future of time itself will surely yield as much color and change as its past has.
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