A 2011 interview with William Gibson got me thinking a little about the nature of time and perception. Gibson’s books (Neuromancer, The Difference Engine, and Count Zero) explore the impact of technology and alternate realities caused by technology on humans.
While often quite dystopian, his worlds raise his reader’s consciousness by essentially “hacking” what we would perceive as “normal” and offering potential alternatives in the form of worlds and people that struggle with the chaos and never-ending change wrought by technology and society.
In the course of my meditation on his work I was struck by his mention of how the steam engine shook people’s view of time and distance, causing widespread wonder and unease as centuries of accepted travel times and methods were overturned. Where once people traveled at an average pace of 2 miles per hour they now could be carried along at 15 miles per hour without doing anything other than purchasing a ticket.
This and subsequent improvements in engineering and technology dragged people closer together and accelerated the pace of human interactions. As a result, language become more streamlined, matching the new demands for communication to be as efficient as travel.
With the change in language and technology came a change in the sense of time and movement that people experienced. The “new normal” was a world with diminishing quiet spots and a sense of living in a linear, streamlined world, with an uncertain future.
Contrast that with a past that consisted of fixed traditions and technology where people were the benchmark, not machines. The subtleties of language and the importance of nuance in relationships were richer in the past because they had to be, since people relied upon each other instead of machines to produce the necessities of life. It was timeless time.
With this accelerated time that we live in, working longer hours with fewer rest periods, and with schedules that seem to expand but never contract; only the wealthy and those willing to give it all up have access to those quiet spots that once filled the globe.
To be sure, we live longer and healthier lives (though not by much and in some places, not anymore) but to what end? Are we able to control and enjoy the time that we have?