Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time
This is a book about how the concept of precise time entered our lives. And how everything always seems to get faster and faster.
From the Introduction:
We are in Egypt. Not Ancient Egypt, which would be a fairly reasonable place to begin a book about time with an old parable, but in modern Egypt, an Egypt out of Condé Nast Traveller, with the fine beaches and the tourists at the pyramids and all that relentless sun beating down on the Mediterranean. We are sitting at a restaurant above a beach near Alexandria, and at one end of the beach we can see a local fisherman catching something tasty for dinner: a nice red mullet perhaps.
We are on holiday after a punishing year. After our meal we stroll towards the fisherman. He speaks a little English. He shows us his catch - not much yet, but he's hopeful. Because we know a little about fishing and opportunity, we suggest he might move to that rock over there, just a little further out, a higher cast than his present position on his old folding stool, and a greater chance of hooking his daily haul of fish much faster.
‘Why would I want to do that?’ he asks.
We say that with greater speed he could spend the same amount of time hooking more fish, so that he could not only have enough for his dinner, but sell the surplus at the market, and with the proceeds he could buy a better rod and a new icebox for his catch.
‘Why would I want to do that?’
So that you can catch even more fish at greater speed, and then sell those fish, and swiftly earn enough to buy a boat, which means deeper seas and still more fish in record time with those big nets they use on trawlers. In fact, he could soon become a successful trawler himself, and people would start calling him Captain.
‘Why would I want that?’ he asks smugly, annoyingly.
We are of the modern world, attuned to ambition and the merits of alacrity, and so we advance our case with growing impatience. If you had a boat, your haul would soon be of such size that you would be a kingpin at the market, be able to set your own prices, buy more boats, hire a workforce and then, fulfilling the ultimate dream, retire before your time, travel the world in luxury, and spend your time sitting in the sun fishing.
‘A bit like I do now?’
Now let us briefly consider the case of William Strachey. Strachey was born in 1819, and from school had set his heart on becoming a civil servant. By the mid-1840s he was working in the Colonial Office in Calcutta, where he became convinced that the people of India, and the people of Calcutta in particular, had found a way to maintain the most accurate clocks (the best clocks in India at this time were probably made in Britain, but no matter). When he returned to England after five years away he determined to carry on living his life by Calcuttan time, a valiant move, for this was usually five-and-a-half hours ahead of London time.
William Strachey was the uncle of Lytton Strachey, the eminent Victorian critic and biographer. Lytton’s own biographer, Michael Holroyd, has noted how William was among the most eccentric of all the Stracheys, which was really saying something, bearing in mind the amount of general weirdness ritually favoured by the Strachey clan. (Another of Lytton Strachey’s uncles, Uncle Bartle, wrote the definitive book – definitive up to that point at any rate – on the orchids of Burma. Yet another, Uncle Trevor, was married to a woman named Aunt Clementina, who, whenever she visited Lytton’s home in Lancaster Gate, spent her time making chapattis on the living room carpet. One of Trevor’s and Clementina’s children died while embracing a bear.)
William Strachey lived until his mid-eighties, and thus spent more than 50 years in England on Calcuttan time. This meant having breakfast at tea-time and a candlelit lunch in the evening, and making decisive calculations regarding train timetables and other routines of daily life, such as shopping and banking hours. But in 1884 it got more complicated still, as Calcuttan time jumped 24 minutes ahead of much of the rest of India, making Strachey’s day five hours and 54 minutes ahead of London time. Sometimes it was just impossible to tell if he was very very early or very very late.
Many of Strachey’s friends (not that he had many friends) grew used to this eccentricity, although he severely tried the patience of his family when he bought a mechanized bed at the Paris International Exposition of 1867. The bed came with a clock designed to wake the occupant at an appointed hour by tipping him or her out, and Strachey rigged it up in such a way that it tipped him into his bath. Despite his planning, he was apparently so enraged when he was first woken in this way that he saw no other option but to smash the clock to ensure he wouldn’t be tipped up again. According to Holroyd, William Strachey spent his remaining years in galoshes, and shortly before he died he bequeathed his nephew an impressive assortment of coloured underpants.
Between the ease of the fisherman and the madness of Strachey lies the compromised life of us all. Do we want the fishing life or the clock life? We want both. We envy those with a carefree existence but we don’t have time to examine it for long. We want more hours in the day but fear we’d probably only waste them. We work all-hours so that we may eventually work less. We are so beholden to time-saving technology that we will work late to be able to afford it. We have invented quality time to distinguish it from that other time. We place a clock by our bed but what we really want is to smash it up.
Time, once passive, is now aggressive. It dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable. We believe that time is running away from us. Technology is making everything faster, and because we know that things will become faster in the future, it follows that nothing is fast enough now. The time zones that so possessed William Strachey are rendered almost obsolete by the perpetual daylight of the Internet. But the strangest thing of all is this: if they were able, the earliest clockmakers would tell us that the pendulum swings at the same rate as it always has, and the calendars have been fixed for hundreds of years. We have brought this cauldron of rush upon ourselves. Time just seems faster because we have made it so.
We crave punctuality but we loathe deadlines. We count down precisely on New Year’s Eve so we may obliterate the hours that follow. We pay for Speedy Boarding so that we may sit on a plane and wait for everyone else to board, and then when we land we pay to get off early. We used to have time to think, but now instant communication barely gives us time to react. Paradise is a beach and the eternal waves and a good book, but then there’s email. Why use Oyster when you can go contactless? Why go contactless when you can Apple Pay? If you don’t come in on Christmas Day don’t bother coming in on Boxing Day. Order within 1hr and 27 minutes for next day delivery. You will meet 15 speed dates in a glamorous setting in a two-hour evening. A search for “time management” produces ‘about’ 38,300,000 results in 0.47 seconds. Experience ultrafast speed up to 200Mbps with Vivid 200 fibre broadband. You need 7 hours and 43 minutes to complete this book on your Kindle.
The suffocating notion of iTime has replaced the factory clock, and we have reached the point where it is no longer possible to experience time independently of technology. The phrase to describe the feeling of hopelessness in the face of time is ‘frenetic standstill’. I first came across it, and also a version of the parable of the Egyptian fisherman, in a highly influential book by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa called Beschleunigung: Die Veränderung de Zeitstrukurern in der Moderne (2005). The main title translates as Acceleration, and it is Rosa's contention that we may be in a period of catastrophic stasis caused by a collision of rapid technological expansion and the widespread feeling that we will never achieve the goals we crave. The more we try to ‘get ahead’, the more impossible becomes the likelihood. The more apps and computer programmes we download to streamline and order our lives, the more we feel like screaming. The fisherman had it right, as, astonishingly, did Bono: we are ‘running to stand still’.
Optimistically, the more benign form of frenetic standstill is not a new thing. In the terminology of popular media we have been ‘living on a hamster wheel’ since the 1950s, while we have been ‘on a treadmill’ since the 1970s. And we can go further back still. In February 1920, in a letter to his colleague Ludwig Hopf, Einstein observed how he was ‘being so terribly deluged with inquiries, invitations, and requests that at night I dream I am burning in hell and the mailman is the devil and is continually yelling at me, hurling a fresh bundle of letters at my head because I still haven’t answered the old ones.’
And further back still. ‘Everything is now “ultra”, Goethe wrote to the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter. ‘Young people are…swept along in the whirlpool of time; wealth and speed are what the world admires and what everyone strives for. All kinds of communicative facility are what the civilized world is aiming at in outpacing itself.’ That was in 1825.
This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. It considers how, over the last 250 years, time has become such a dominant and insistent force in our lives, and asks why, after tens of thousands of years of looking up at the sky for vague and moody guidance, we now take atomically precise cues from our phones and computers not once or twice a day but continually and compulsively. The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.
I recently bought the smartphone app Wunderlist. It’s designed to ‘sort out and synchronise your to-dos for home, work and everything in between’ and ‘take a quick peek inside a to-do’ and ‘swipe down from any app to get a glance of your due to-dos with our Today widget’. Buying the app was a tough choice, as there are also apps named Tick Task Pro, Eisenhower Planner Pro, gTasks, iDo Notepad Pro, Tiny Timer, 2Day 2Do, Little Alarms, 2BeDone Pro, Calendar 366 Plus, Howler Timer, Tasktopus, Effectivator and many, many hundreds of others. In January 2016, these Business and Productivity apps – the vast majority concerned with time-saving, time-management and increased speed and efficiency in all aspects of our lives - accounted for a greater share of Apple and Android apps than Education, Entertainment, Travel, Books, Health & Fitness, Sports, Music, Photos and News, all of which were also vaguely concerned with improving efficiency and getting more done faster. Yes, that name was ‘Tasktopus’. How did we arrive at this terrible and exciting place?
Timekeepers will attempt to find out. We don’t begin in Ancient Egypt because the book is primarily concerned with our modern age. For most of the time we will be in the company of contemporary and modern witnesses, among them some remarkable artists, athletes, inventors, composers, filmmakers, writers, orators, social scientists and, of course, watchmakers. The book will consider the practical rather than ethereal applications of time – time as a lead character in our lives, and sometimes the only one against which we judge our worth – and examine just a few instances when our measurement and notion of temporal things enhanced, restricted or restructured our lives in important and novel ways. The book will not scold us for our fast living, although several people will suggest how to apply the breaks. Nor will it be a book about theoretical physics, so we will not figure out whether Time is real or imaginary, or what came before the Big Bang: instead, the book examines what came after the big bang of the industrial revolution. Equally, we’re not going to mess around with science fiction or the mechanics of time-travel, all that going back to kill your own grandfather and suddenly-waking-up-in-the-Field-of-the-Cloth-of-Gold rigmarole. I’m taking the rational Groucho Marx line on all of this: time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana. (At least the joke is attributed to Groucho Marx, although one can spend a very pleasurable weekend searching in vain for even one occurrence of him actually saying it. The expression probably originates in an article on the uses of computers in science written for Scientific American in September 1966 by the Harvard professor Anthony G Oettinger.)
We have always been trying to live in the perfect present. Timekeepers examines this desire with tales of the French Revolution, the Leica camera, the coming of the railways, the disruptive politics of the Mayan calendar, a strict classroom in Switzerland, Beethoven’s 9th, the complications of time zones, the watch at the top of Everest, how to gain at least two hours a day with Time Control, the value of reputation and immortality, the problems with quartz and the delights of Timex, Harold Lloyd, food fast and slow, a person falling off a bike and a another falling down a mountain, some really expensive model-making, Prince Charles and his fire station, Edward Muybridge’s murder trial, impending nuclear destruction, a clock with 10 hours, a trip to the British Museum, Roger Bannister’s distinguished but unheralded career as a neurologist, excessively long movies, the perfect length for a speech and the beautiful traditions of English watchmaking, among other things. There will be the occasional sampling of wisdom from old Jewish comedians. The timeline will be cyclical rather than linear, because time has a habit of folding back upon itself (the early days of cinema appears here before the early days of photography, for example). But chronological or not, it comes with one inevitability – that sooner or later we will track down the person responsible for the copyline ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation’, and try not to kill him. A little later the book will examine the wisdom of time-saving gurus, examine why the CD lasts the length it does, and explain why you should think very seriously before travelling on 30th June.