Sense of Time


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Donald Trump tells the story of again.

The Office , six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. What was here yesterday no longer is. The touch and taste of the s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.

As the decade closes with an impeachment inquiry, Trump drags and twists the entire country through six turns each day. And when you go back and tally it all up — when this product got announced and when that platform launched this feature — so much of the way our phones and lives work today congealed during the election. And, within a few months in , both the primary catalog for millions of lives Instagram and the primary channel for news and culture Twitter switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines.

All this happened while the country realized Trump could become president, and then he did — an experience somehow both mystifying and like watching a wet paper bag break.

Time perception

How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us? The s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows.

Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was. But if you leave London and land in Los Angeles today, your phone will adjust and display in perpetuity the correct time in big sans serif numerals, no matter what you seek on the screen.

Take, for instance, television. Often described, with a weary irony , as the era of Peak TV , this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had.

In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale. A director films a movie, then later, people watch it; a novelist writes, then readers read. But television takes weeks, seasons, years, even decades. A fan had to keep inviting her favorite show back in.

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Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Apple, and others have launched or relaunched streaming properties and brought online massive back catalogs of old shows. In September , Apple relaunched its News app, and by early , the service vastly expanded the number of people receiving news push alerts on their lock screens. News no longer arrives at any set time in the morning, in the evening , or even on demand, but instead all the time, delivered by people and algorithms. This kind of disruption happened often over the last century. The rise of television killed the day game and the afternoon newspaper, and transformed entire industries and the presidency into staggering centers of power and wealth.

But if you revisit the stories of 20th-century media and technology, they weigh toward centralization and consolidation — slotting the news, entertainment, and politics into the morning news, the late-night show, the weekly magazine on air or in print. As a result, when you pull numbers on the not-so-distant past, the commonplace becomes exotic: On May 16, , To put that paradigm shift in context: For a brief period in , the quiz game show HQ — a live trivia game with a real-life host on a phone app — became popular probably because it required users to tune in at the same set times, something now foreign.

The time between when you enter a Trump rally and when he finally concludes can be long.

Children may perceive time as it's happening more slowly than adults

You might come in from a bright desert evening, as the crowd did that night, and exit into a pitch-black thunderstorm. In between, you wait for Trump, indoors, without windows, listening to the same 20 songs selected by Trump, from Tina Turner to Andrew Lloyd Webber — that are, like anything else selected by Trump, booming into your brain.

Eventually, to kill time, people at the Santa Ana Star Center did the wave.


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A group of teens let out long Woooooooo s. Pavarotti wailed in Italian. Trump inspires weird scenes like this from the lovers and haters alike. Pull up YouTube now and you can watch him perform a poem in different cities and in different years, sometimes in reading glasses and sometimes without, sometimes dedicated with cruelty and spite to Syrian refugees and sometimes to the US—Mexico border. In , Instagram launched and the messaging app WhatsApp came to both Android and iOS; in , Snapchat opened for business and Spotify came to the US; in , the workplace chat system Slack launched.

The early part of the decade was about building the systems. And though Twitter preceded this decade, the platform came to political and cultural prominence in the s. Since clock-time is such a late contrivance of the human community, we cannot expect to find an innately based capacity for clock-time.

Now, someone might object, even though the mechanical clock is of a recent date, time itself has always been the same and the mechanical clock is only a more efficient way of keeping track of it. From our viewpoint of the 21st century this is how it may seem, immersed as we are in standardized, uniform, and abstract clock-time. However, it is a misunderstanding. The introduction of the mechanical clock, meant more than just a more efficient technology, it also introduced a new and different sort of time — a uniform, evenly flowing time.

While other modern instruments enabled the detection of previously undetectable natural phenomena such as radiation, the mechanical clock created its own new phenomenon. Temporal organization involving days, months, and years has been around in the human community for millennia. It is in principle not too mysterious. The cyclic events are there for the counting, the only requirement is to keep your eyes open and devise a method for keeping track of the cycles.

These cyclic natural events then become a back-drop, against which other events may be gaged. This is a simplified description to make a point. In reality, there are records of systematic observations of temporal patterns in the movement of heavenly bodies of all kinds. Not only the most salient, like the sun and the moon. But in principle, even an uneducated stone-age man could construct a simple calendar based on these most obvious celestial events.

In ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Babylon sundials and water-clocks were used to aid time-keeping.

The principle of the sundial is to subdivide the cycle of the sun into equal units. The Egyptians divided the day in 12 h, but these hours were not standardized to be uniform the way our modern hours are.

How your brain experiences time

They would vary in length with the season. These unequal hours are sometimes referred to as temporal hours or true time ; Landes, Thus the temporal units of the sundials could not be used as an objective measure of time, e. They could unambiguously only indicate points in time such as sunrise, high noon, and sunset, which also could be determined simply by eyeballing the sky. In overcast weather and at night, when the sundial does not work, the water-clock was useful. The principle of the water-clock is different than that of the sundial.

Instead of subdividing the duration of a known event the suns movement across the sky an event is created the slow drip of water in or out of a vessel and then the accumulated events the volume of water are measured. Interestingly, in antiquity the water-clock was calibrated to conform to the sundial. It had a different scale for different months, even though the technology would easily have allowed for the introduction of standardized time units. This means that, a question such as: — What time does the sun set? Thus, for most of human history, time-keeping has been a matter of gauging one event against another.

In other words, rather than having time define events, events defined time. This sort of event-time is still in use in some places. If you were to ask a person in rural Burundi when he wants to meet, he might say that he will meet you when the young cows go out. In some parts of Madagascar, a question about how long time something takes might produce an answer like the time of a rice-cooking about half an hour; Levine, The mechanical clock dates back to the end of the 13th century.

The principle of its operation was similar to the water-clock — a uniform, artificial event was generated, and then the event was repeated, while keeping an accumulative count. Unlike the clepsydra, the mechanical clock technology did not allow for calibration with a sundial. It could not handle the ever-changing temporal hour.

A standard had to be chosen and the choice fell on subdivisions of a mean solar-day. The mechanical clocks were at first not very good and they did not indicate minutes. Eventually they improved and in the 17th century when a pendulum was added to the construction, the resulting clock looked like our modern clocks and performed almost as well Lundmark, ; Dorn-van Rossum, ; Landes, ; NIST, The mechanical clock brought about a new sort of time; uniform, objective, and abstract, free of its content.

It created uniform units for abstract time. People have always known of an abstract time, beyond or behind the events, i. But without units, abstract time is truly evasive and of little practical use in time-keeping. I think it is safe to say that for time-keeping, the event-time mode has been the standard for a vastly longer period of human existence than has time-keeping by means of clock-time. Therefore I find it unlikely that humans would be equipped with a built-in ability to detect abstract, uniform, and objective time as this sort of time is a product of the mechanical clock.

I think it is more likely that our ability to operate with clock-time overlays the older event-time mode. Perceiving abstract, uniform, and objective clock-time is likely a learned skill which entails translating our experience of events into clock-time units. One of the most repeated passages, a Locus Classicus, in the literature on psychological time, is an anecdote of how events sometimes distort our estimation of time. It typically reads something like this: — Have you noticed how, when you are engaged in or observing a rousing, entertaining or novel event, time seems to pass rapidly, while time seems to drag when nothing much is happening or the event is a boring one.


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Generally the analysis ends there. The assumption seems to be that the temporal information embedded in events is inherently unreliable, and events are therefore rejected as a source of temporal information. I think this rejection may be a bit premature. Undoubtedly, there are extraordinarily captivating events which make us forget about everything else, as well as sluggish ones that never seem to end, but these are at the extreme ends of the scale.

There are also events somewhere in the middle, appealing or important enough to keep your attention up, but not so to make us lose sight of other matters of the day. Of particular interest for the account presented here is a class of events which we have experienced many times, and regarding which we possess a substantial amount of knowledge or event-knowledge.

These are the events and activities of everyday life which are so familiar to us that the memories of them come to possess a schema- or script-like character. This type of events are frequently referred to as everyday events, routine events, or recurring events. Given that it is logically impossible for the same event to happen more than once, our minds are apparently not conforming to the rules of logic in this matter.

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