Have we become the White Rabbit? The experience of Time in the Postmodern Era

Have we become the White Rabbit? The experience of Time in the Postmodern Era

1.     Talking to the hands

There has been a spate of articles about time recently, many of which seek to encapsulate social and cultural changes through abstract conceptions of time.   Time is an immeasurable topic to attempt to talk about. On the one hand, it has been discussed by so many disciplines, from so many perspectives; on the other, less visibly it forms how we semiotically engage in discourse on a daily basis. From a socio-cultural perspective, the cultural production of all meaning occurs across dialectical and systematic dimensions of space-and-time.   When we think of how time changes meaning, it is either synchronic (occurring at the same time) or diachronic (changing over time).

I’ve been interested in some of the dominant and residual ways that we talk about time – in that how we talk about time is a bellwether to our changing relationship with time today. The focus here is to limit this discussion to ‘time running out’; the current western obsession with being busy, time poor and always struggling to meet deadlines. While an opaque mantra of modern life is the pursuit of work/life balance, this can be contrasted to the very modern obsession on time running out; with the demands of modernity taxing even the most reasonable of lifestyles.

You must not think linearly. The water in these fountains doesn’t. Nature doesn’t; nature knows nothing of time. Time is an invention of the West.”

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

   The White Rabbit

White Rabbit Culture Decanted

A pervasive literary evocation of the fear missing a deadline is that of the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit racing against the hands of the clock, with his head literally on the line. Lewis Carroll started his story of a young girl’s journey to adulthood; with the juxtaposition of the effect of time on the nervous and elderly rabbit, against the exuberant and innocent youth of Alice starting her life’s journey. The white rabbit in many ways is a metaphor for the modern bureaucrat worn down by time and the relentless pressure of time.

The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

In contemporary society, people don’t generally believe they are busier than the preceding generation, they believe they are ‘constantly on’ and connected to others across more parts of their lives; and that the world itself is moving faster. If we think about the difference of Pre-WW1 life, 90% of the population had an income that came from agriculture; in the following years this situation has reversed with explosions in urban living. Live has moved from the seasonal clock of agriculture to measuring our days by the movement of seconds.

What is the nature of time?

Time is a notoriously difficult concept to understand.

Zoltan Kovecses

The modern understanding of time is almost always anchored in the present, past and future. It is perhaps relevant here to draw the distinctions and meaning present in ‘time’ in the two ways that early Greek philosophy perceived time.

Mythology of Time

Time can be understood as an all-encompassing concept (synchronic) versus a more segmented and differentiated concept (diachronic) conception, fit into the standard discourse of modern society and culture. Current society understands the Chronos model – the causal relation of different modes of time, rather than perceiving time as an interrelated constant.

Science fiction, as always, often explores these deeper concepts in easier ways. In Star Trek DS9, Captain Sisko tries to explain our perception of time against a race of aliens that live in an Aion conception of time where they perceive all time simultaneously.

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Metaphors of time.

This thing all things devours;

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats mountain down.

The Hobbit

The metaphors that we use to explain time guides our perception of reality. In practice, we use many different metaphors to explain time in language. George Lakoff (1993:228) explains,

“We do not have detectors for time. Thus, it makes good biological sense that time should be understood in terms of things and motion.”

Our understanding of abstract time is most commonly understood via space and is biologically determined.  Some common metaphors are:

  • Time is a precious resourceit is a currency ‘every moment is precious ‘or a gift to be savoured’ or ‘spend your time wisely’, ‘don’t have the time to give you’, ‘you are wasting my time’, ‘invested a lot of time in the project’, etc.
  • Time is movement – it is a river or stream we need to navigate, but also that time is something we move through, like water, through our lifetime; it is like an arrow that has been released and can’t be stopped; ‘time flies; it is a race where you are constantly running against the clock; time goes by fast.
  • Time is a thread – representing the linear nature of time, also the idea that fate spins these threads of destiny.
  • Time is a predator – like the Hobbit riddle above; is a devouring relentless force, also expressed that time is a storm that is destructive; alternatively, time is a thief and takes life from you.
  • Time is fleeting – it’s a moment, there is only the now, the present moment.
  • Time is a prison or trap – not being able to escape from the present.
  • Time has a horizon – it has a past, present and ending, ‘the end of days’.

Since we tend to think of time from the perspective of Chronos and not Aion, this involves perspectives of space and time: ‘Future times are in front of the observer, past times are behind the observer’ and ‘One thing is moving, the other is stationary; the stationary thing is the deictic center’.

From a cultural level, it’s important to clarify that these examples are representative of English metaphors and there are cultural differences. For example, time is a horizontal concept in English, whereas in Chinese, time is considered a vertical concept. Although, across different languages a constant is that time is conceptualised as being one-dimensional, such as ahead/behind or up/down, rather than in multi-dimensional or symmetric terms such as shallow/deep or left-right.

In discussing the relationship of the space-time-continuum, Boroditsky observes

Aspects of time that are extractable from world experience (temporally bounded
events, unidirectional change, etc.) may be represented in their own right. However,
there are many aspects of our concept of time that are not observable in the world.
For example, does time move horizontally or vertically? Does it move forward or
back, left or right, up or down? Does it move past us, or do we move through it? All
of these aspects are left unspecified in our experience with the world. They are,
however, specified in our language – most often through spatial metaphors. Whether
we are looking forward to a brighter tomorrow, falling behind schedule, or proposing theories ahead of our time, we are relying on spatial terms to talk about time.

Boroditsky’s conclusion is that

‘That space and time share enough relational structure to allow spatial schemas to be
used as easily as temporal schemas to organize events in time… It appears that abstract domains such as time are indeed shaped by metaphorical mappings from more concrete and experiential domains such as space’.

Time as a finite resource

Michael Olmert has suggested that clocks and even more mundane indexical devices such as toothbrushes, are devices that allow for larger populations to exist in areas of urban concentration by making individuals more ‘orderly’. Without time you can’t coordinate large population densities. Most cities are defined by their clock towers that often act as an ‘axis mundi’ as the central focus for the settlement. Our societies literally and figuratively revolve around the clock. While this is a spatial observation, this can also be a temporal one for generations. Yuri Lotman, defines our cities as

‘… a mechanism, forever recreating its past, which then can be synchronically juxtaposed with the present’. (Lotman 2000: 195)

It is in the heart of modern urban living that time is being understood in different ways from the past. Stuart Hall makes the observation:

Modern societies are therefore by definition societies of constant, rapid, and permanent change. This is the principal distinction between “traditional” and “modern” societies. Modernity, by contrast, is not only defined as the experience of living with rapid, extensive, and continuous change, but is a highly reflexive form of life ….

A hypothesis is that in the modern world we perceive time as a precious resource that runs out too quickly. There is a consistent analogy between the human span of years and the hourglass, from the ancient Egyptians to daytime USA pulp culture.

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It is possible to see how this hypothesis could have influenced changes in western society over the last fifty years. This has largely been driven by the influence of American culture on the world stage. Over this time span, the American perspective on ‘living’ has skewed:

  • Youth is more desirable than age
  • Attitude is superior to collective wisdom of age and experience
  • Quick action is desirable to contemplation
  • Extroversion vs introversion (in that youthfulness is often more extroverted)
  • Simplicity over complexity.

Thinking that a precious resource is running out, frames your mind to focus on what you are losing, not on what you are gaining.

Feeling the pulse of time

It’s worth taking a moment to pause, to think of the impact of time as experienced through our biology. We might think of time through metaphors but is George Lakoff correct in saying that we do not have receptors for time?

Many of us talk of our body clocks, biological clocks, body age or circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. They are found in most living things, including animals, plants and many tiny microbes. The study of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology.

Here, the human body becomes the mechanical device to measure the impact of time. The metaphor of a clock evokes comparisons of broken or disrupted time experiences, where we talk of shift work, all-nighters, parenting babies or the impact of jetlag. In discussing the roll of the circadian clock, Akhilesh Reddy, from the University of Cambridge, said that this has a role from algae through to human beings:

“We know that clocks exist in all our cells; they’re hard-wired into the cell. Imagine what we’d be like without a clock to guide us through our days. The cell would be in the same position if it didn’t have a clock to coordinate its daily activities.

Joseph Campbell, in discussing the mythology of time, noted that a healthy resting heart beat is 60 beats a minute – one beat a second. He was suggesting that our bodies are influential in how we conceptualise time. We think through time experientially through space as an interrelated metaphor, but the experience of time appears to be fundamental to our DNA.

An observation made at the beginning of this article is that our era is characterised by a perception that we are not busier than other generations, but that life is moving at a faster pace. This is driven by a whole range of factors (explored in some of my other blog posts), but technology is a significant factor here.

Biologically, running out of time, when you ‘burn the candle at both ends’, is the solution many make in the face of increasing and diverse life demands: to gain more time you need to get less sleep. The loss-of-sleep has led to medical governing bodies increasingly identifying sleep-debt as a major contributor to ill health. Looking at a selection of recent articles:

Our understanding of the role of sleep is only starting to be understood in terms of its full implication for physical and psychological wellbeing.

‘Time Is Running Out’ Symbolism

If we are organising ourselves around time in our daily schedules, battling around the perception that we don’t get as much time as we need, at a macro-level, we can see the same symbolism being played out on collective social and cultural levels.   Often we use the symbolism of clocks as a way of evoking the progression of more abstract concepts. I’ll talk through four examples briefly here:

The Molecular Clock of Evolution

The molecular clock is perceived as an essential tool for the study of evolutionary biology, molecular ecology and conservation genetics.

For the past 40 years, evolutionary biologists have been investigating the possibility that some evolutionary changes occur in a clock-like fashion. Over the course of millions of years, mutations may build up in any given stretch of DNA at a reliable rate. For example, the gene that codes for the protein alpha-globin (a component of haemoglobin) experiences base changes at a rate of .56 changes per base pair per billion years. If this rate is reliable, the gene could be used as a molecular clock

The molecular clock works as a conceptual hypothesis for estimating evolutionary timescales – rather than being something that is ticking.

The Cosmic Calendar or Clock

The Cosmic Calendar is a method to visualize the vast history of the universe in which its 13.8 billion year lifetime is condensed down into a single year. You can see Carl Sagan explain its purpose directly, from the past.

The Millennial Clock – Millennialism

From a cultural perspective, most western cultures were wrapped up in millennialism in one form or the other in the year 2000. This milestone number in the year 1000, 2000 and no doubt 3000 evokes a lot of spiritual projection. In the year 999AD, there was a belief that a ‘Golden age’ or ‘Paradise’ would start from start from the commencement of the next era? a religious belief was driven by Revelation 20:1-6.

For the more secular world, this sense of something important happening with our calendars’ milestone was encapsulated in the hysteria around Y2K. After years of dismissing cults with their doomsday predictions, the world blinked and bought into a myth that a computer-bug about time coding could take away their technology.

Y2K - End of the World

More recently, the embers were fanned when clocks will get an extra second on June 30, 2015 to account for the fact that it is taking the Earth longer and longer to complete one full turn—a day—or, technically, a solar day. Even though this has occurred 25 times since 1972.

Doomsday Clock

Doomsday Clock

Perhaps the conceptual clock that has had the most impact on the pre-millennial generations is the Doomsday Clock. A frequent shadow of the cold war, this is something the younger generations have not grown up with.   For example, to quote a conversation at Reuters on the topic:

“Where are the Watchmen when you need them…”

‘That’s exactly what I thought! Was surprised when I first saw the graphic that the “Doomsday Clock” was a real thing 🙂

The clock illustrates a countdown to possible global catastrophe (e.g. nuclear war or climate change). It has been maintained since 1947 by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Overtime, the various global threats have moved how close to midnight the world has come:

Doomsday Clock 2

The doomsday clock is currently set at 3 minutes and counting. Their dashboard explains the factors that go into setting the clock

Doomsday Clock 3Doomsday Clock 4 Doomsday Clock 5

Out of time

Alice: How long is forever?

White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Perhaps to revisit the allegory of the White Rabbit, his stress was created by the technology that he was carrying with him. His understanding of time was directly due to his need to keep running and monitor his every step of his journey with his pocket watch, perhaps a prophetic vision of how many of us live our lives. This is from the way we understand our movements through a day but also in how we measure more abstract concepts such as the Doomsday threat.

Ironically in the Matrix, a dystopian ‘contemporary’ world where technology is the bane of humankind’s existence, it is the White Rabbit that offers Neo his first step to understanding and ultimately leaving the Matrix.  Especially if you read the last panel from the Doomsday Panel Analysis above ‘Preparing for more cyber conflict’ and ‘the killer robot problem’.

Matrix white rabbit

Increasingly, every minute of the day, plotted in cloud-based calendars and prompted to action by our smart phones. These devices are now merging to a new form of enumeration of our active/time through the quantification-of-self innovations.

As an experiment, I spent a few days asking people politely for the time. This seemed to confuse many who were incredulous that I wouldn’t have a watch or a mobile. The second observation is that more than three-quarters of the people read the time from their phones, not from a watch. The question is whether the watch hands measure time or now only represent our need to keep moving.

White Rabbit Movie