On The Tragedy of Technological Time
"Nay, he's a thief too: have you not heard men say That Time comes stealing on by night and day?" Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors (Act IV, Scene II)
Welcome back to the The World of Yesterday on Substack. The subject of this post is time; in particular, our relationship to time, and how this relationship has been impacted by the new form time has taken in our world — what I refer to as ‘technological time’. I define technological time as the form that time assumes in our era of technology. I’ll argue that a certain terror is the primary effect of technological time.
But first I’ll take a small step back. Whenever one attempts to breach as large and as unconquerable a subject such as time, a sense doubt is generated at a greater or at least equal rate to any sentence one that puts down. However, this doubt need not form an aversion if one can conceptualize writing about a complex subject to be like climbing a mountain.
Writing About Mountains
So, take time as a mountain, take time as Mount Everest — the highest and most infamous peak of them all — and this essay or any essay on the subject as an attempt to climb just one route of it. In truth, anyone who has climbed Everest has only climbed (or attempted to climb) one route of it. If you attempt to climb a mountain enough, even if to reach nowhere near its peak, one can still gather a much better sense of the entire mountain, of the entire subject, than if it was conquered in one go. Even when climbing Everest a popular method is to return to previously surpassed elevations in order to help your body in acclimatizing to its continually newfound harsher and harsher realities. In this way, two steps forward are ensured by one necessary step, and paradoxically, to climb the mountain is actually to descend it. While progress in this way looks like the polar opposite of it, the fact is that one can only ascend Everest by going down it at certain times.
In all, to surmount Everest is not to conquer it: it is only to succeed in ascending one part of it. Not only are there are more avenues of ascent, there are all the areas neglected in proceeding straight to the top. The peak, while the most sought after points, is nevertheless the smallest part of a mountain and cannot exist without support on all sides, without everything that is below it. No matter the subject, no matter the mountain, all writing is like this also. To write, there need not be any guarantee of reaching the mountain’s peak, for there is interest and worth at every altitude and in every overturned stone, for there is interest and worth in every attempt to climb even if the result is falling, or even in reaching a point one at which one cannot progress upwards. Still, a valuable marker of previous progress has nevertheless been staked. We find that we climb not to peak; but to ascend, that we write not to know; but to learn.
The Tragedy of Technological Time
Time is concurrently our greatest ally and greatest adversary. However, while this basic condition of our relationship to time cannot change, what remains adjustable is the distributed weight of these contending qualities, that is, the degree to which time is our friend and foe. There are always at least some elements of both present. I contend that however fearful we are of time - its passing, its non-passing - that we are grateful to it also. So time is our friend in that we are grateful for it, that it helps us, and time is our foe in that we are fearful of it, that it harms us.
I argue for two complementary points in this essay. First, I want to say that technological time, which is simply time in our age of technology, has a more adversarial impact to us than did its predecessor. Second, to source the aforementioned adversarial impact, that that the very nature of our fear of time has fundamentally shifted from a general fear of not having enough time to a fear of having too much of it instead. I’ll explain the inner workings of this new technological time and mechanisms by which we remain afraid of it, albeit in a way that is more artificial and ultimately more tragic. I’ll also defend that we are not fully at fault for these effects, partly ascribing our transformed though still retained fear to be an inherent condition of the age in which we live and the particular form of free time it generates, that is, not free time at all.
A quick aside (or is it a fast-forward?) in order to help frame the particular ‘fear’ I’m after: until recently, no one ever talked seriously of immortality (Thomas J. Bevan on the topic here; we arrive at same conclusion going opposite ways). I believe that our peaked interest in immortality is sourced at our newfound fear of technological time, our unconscious loathing towards our wasted time, the amount of which time adeptly keeps score, measuring our wasted hours in days, months, and years. My view is that how much time we have and our inability to use it to good advantage is what we are most scared of. So we want to make more of it, foolishly, naively, and without the realization it wouldn’t be to any benefit if we remain unable to make use of it. I think that we are scared of time now, in its soon to be insisted increase quantity, because ultimately we waste it. However, it is only the use of it - living - that would ever quell this fear rather than the creation of more (to then inevitably throw away).
Back to the chase. Time kills us, whether through entropy or some other method. Being in some unfortunate place at some inopportune time kills us. Even so, time is the only way to measure our existence, and being in a fortunate place at an opportune time is the only reason we live at all. I have proposed that technological time is adversarial to us. Whether this is a necessary quality of technological time (the possibility of which I have alluded to), or an effect that we are responsible for enabling (which is part of the truth as well) will remain inconclusive and is a dichotomy I’ll return to in future writing.1 What is clear is that the tragedy of technological time is the resulting effect of our struggle to contend with it, a state sourced at what technological time truly is: a diluted deluge, a weaker but greater quantity of its past form.
The Physiognomy of Technological Time
There are two factors that form the above assessment of technological time: this dampened, diluted, deluge of time that we have come to feel as if we have wasted, and therefore have come to fear. First, in technological time, we have more time, but at the same time, less ‘free time’ in its purest form. These factors combine to result in a false surplus (though a surplus all the same).2 When I assert that we have too much time, I mean time that is not spent in the necessity of work, necessary obligations, or the required rest in consequence to these laborious activities, but instead in relative ‘freedom’ — that is, free time, as it were — which is the specific sort of time that modern technology (transport, hygiene, electronics, etc) and modern politics (without widespread conflict) have combined to forge out of our prior existence, in loose terms.
While I’ll come to critique the precise nature of the free time that technological time has created — that our free time is not only free in conception but also exists at a great cost — the increase of it absolute terms is attributable to our era being an era of peace; perhaps the era of peace, and an era of technology; perhaps the era of technology. Our entire history has led to these peaceful days and the peaceful time contained within them. We have never had more time and we know this unconsciously, and are perhaps coming to be aware of it consciously as well. The reason we have become afraid of the amount of time we have is because we waste it, because we are incapable of capitalizing on it, of using it effectively, of being productive.3 In wasting our peaceful hours, we waste our peaceful era. We fear what we have become, and technological time’s flat, empty wake is the primary symbol of such waste.
i. THAT WE HAVE MORE FREE TIME
This deluge of non-working hours take the form of restful hours and peaceful hours. Restful hours come when we have worked and toiled to an extent that the hours following them are defined by deserved recuperation, while peaceful hours are hours in which rest is not necessarily required but allowed all the same. It is peaceful hours in particular — most commonly known as free time — that is the chief by-product of technological time. Free time is a relatively modern invention, conceived at the precept of organized civilization, developed (albeit with severe growing pains) during Industrialization, then delivered at the onset modern technology. For most of our history one was forced to take any and all opportunity to work to sustain or otherwise protect one’s life. We fortified our shelters, moved shelters, collected food, and hunted for food, because by the time we were hungry it was too late to start hunting. Food does not appear on the table automatically, except by the modern illusion that it does.
Now, we waste copious amounts the free time we won for ourselves. The tap of time runs and our hands are not underneath it. We are unproductive and even worse we act in our own self-harm. It seems unlikely that we have ever had more time, never possessed a greater quantity of peaceful hours in which to use to our advantage. In the past, individuals like Goethe, who knew of time’s infinite value, could carve out some small quantity of it with a tightly held scalpel of discipline. By luck, have been granted more time without earning it both over the course of our lives and in each day.
"The day is of infinite length for him who knows how to appreciate and use it.”
There is a popular theory that society evolved out of the time standard practices of agriculture that replaced hunting. When you plant crops, you plant (and eventually harvest) time out of the ground also. You can look at the stars when you aren’t having to scan the ground for mushrooms. Whether or not you agree with this basic theory, you must agree that we now have more time of leisure, and consequently more peaceful hours, more free time, than we have ever had before. Until recently, most people would say that they fear time because they feared not having enough of it. Now, I believe our fear of time to be on account of having too much and not doing anything with it. I believe the waste of this peaceful time is exactly because how much of it we have, paired with the fallacious makeup of free time in technological. How has this come to be, and why is this the case?
ii. THAT WE HAVE LESS FREE TIME IN ITS PURE FORM
On top of the false surplus explained above, technological time and the ‘free’ time that comes with it is a diluted version of the free time we used to have. We now have no pure version of free time, but more of lesser version, for, there is a red circle with a rising number in the far right corner of our free time. This is like effect of light seeping through through the back of your eyelids, rendering full darkness as only 75% dark. The red light lingers and tires us, we can never get fully to sleep, we can never be in complete peace. The image of a red circle that resembles a notification in the top right corner of your closed eyelids is meant to show that while there is more of it, there is also less of it at the same time.
To compound the effect of there being less free time in its pure form, our free time has lost the quality of being free on account of new influence of pervasive technology in our age of technological time that comes with a constantly paid opportunity cost Continuous internet coverage now allows for the constant potential for production (buying and selling on the 24h market, creating something, coding, etc), that makes all time result in an output of either productivity or waste. Something interesting may magically happen on Twitter on any given moment, because we, and everyone else, has access to Twitter at any given moment. The process of NOAD ends up being time that is used as a distraction, to NO ADvantage. The increase of such an tainted free time to be begin with is therefore resigned to be fruitless in its imposing potential: if one can be ‘economically’ productive in any given moment (think of what how little one would be able to accomplish at night without electricity), then one chooses not the be economically productive in any moment of rest, of peace.
We are economic beings yes, but now we always are, and more so, never as much as we can be. In the past we rose with the light of dawn, and slept with the darkness rather than alarms on our phones. We often stopped working because we had no possibility to work, and were thus rewarded with true free time, albeit a small amount of it. True free time must be without obligation, and our smartphones take this away from us. So why do we fear our increased quantity of time? We fear it because of what it exposes within us, that is, waste, neglect, failed opportunity, and idea of what that time could have been. It tells us of our missed potential. Our peaceful hours and the free time they contain is not truly free time, for it is false and has a cost. Our peace is never true peace. Our peaceful hours are tainted: we have more of them but less. We have more, but less. We are more, but less.
Netflix and Other Maladies
What do we do with the copious amount of time we waste? It’s hardly the case that we spend our time staring at walls, for we are doing something. Turns out that that something is activities like watching Netflix, for example, and further watching Netflix in a manner that is patently absurd. We know this not because we readily admit it, but because we brag about it. “I watch Grey’s Anatomy over the holidays” “All of it?” “Yes, for a second time.” Anyone who has watched Grey’s Anatomy has done so for 272 hours and 33 minutes. Anyone who has watched Grey’s Anatomy twice has done so for 545 hours and 6 minute. Is this supposed to be impressive? Binge-watching is a gluttonous folly: it’s not even watching, it is more accurately a blind occupation of time. Binge-watching is doing something to avoid doing anything else, to provide the illusion that you are in fact accomplishing something. And still, binge-watching is advertised like something we should be impressed with. We openly brag about this, the lack of our self-control, our missing impulse to make better use of our time, our devoted commitment to wasting it. Our first binge is now our first kiss.
Such attitudes remain unbelievable to me. A television executive fifty years ago would have never believed this fact, that they could capture, nay, steal, someone’s attention for hours and hours without interruption, and modern sensibilities of younger generations indicate this is increasingly the case. This is all an awful thing, an awful practice, that not only do we waste our time, but we pretend we occupy it, we boast that it is occupied. This is a counter-mechanism to the newfound fear of technological time, to the new time we experience, that is, an overload of it that we don’t know what to do with. We know we should do something with it, so we try to get rid of it instead, out of fear - and we fear it more. We like to think we are doing something, we like to watch the red bar slide across the screen. We like to watch these red bars, blood diamonds of completion, accumulate until all has been made whole. Until we aren’t left with any more time to waste.
Many of the reasons above are not truthful, they are simply a close function of ‘It fills my time because I’m scared of using it otherwise.’ Both reasons one and two can be answered by going to Wikipedia. The aversion to having ‘to deal with spoilers’ only indicates that such a great percentage of the population watches at this increased rate. What’s more, after 12 days of having Netflix, you might be like this too, you might learn to waste your time in the most wasteful way possible.4
Air Travel: A Brief Study in Man and Time
Our previous sanctuaries of free time that is indeed free, that doesn’t succumb to the above restraints are dwindling also. As much as air travel is a marvel of technology containing the best advances in some areas, it was until recently somewhat lagging in regards to others such as internet connection. As a result, I find that when I am on a plane I can think, and really think, for the main reason that there was nothing else I could do or be expected to do.5 It was free time for the mind to be free, where nobody could expect to hear from you. A passenger has paused the world for an x amount of hours, but still advances greatly, nearly at the speed of sound. No matter the result of next few hours, you have gone somewhere, and likely a great distance. It feels good, like free advancement.
Or, this is what it used to be like. Here is what we have done: we have destroyed it, just like other previous protected areas like the pre-internet hime. We have installed WiFi that is cheap and fast and easy to connect to on our planes. We have fortified the fact that 21st century man must always be more connected to the satellites than the stars, for, the satellites are the new stars. Now we must be afraid of this time too. Our entire history has led to these peaceful hours and yet they are wasted.
A Requiem to Free Time
So, the 21st century we remain afraid of time, just as we always have been, though the fear is not of the same sort we have become accustomed to experiencing throughout our history. For, we don’t now fear time in that we have not enough of it — a never ending shortage that is somehow always replenished by the rising sun just enough to always be short of it — but instead because we have too much. We are fearful all the same. There is a false sense of free time, for as I have explained this free time is not truly free. Technological time creates time that appears as free but isn’t. In the end we fear technological time, yes, but we are terrified of its effects, and rebel against it by anti-activities such as binging, trying to reject the world we have given ourselves.
If to take the entire concept of time as the grandiose Everest we first described it as, there are of many ways up this mountain. I’ll still attempt many more summits, no matter how far I’ve gotten on this climb. You can’t climb all the routes of the mountain all at once. So, time: ally or adversary, the role it will play more of in your life is up to you. The world is timed to the tick of technological time, but to what time do you tick? Time: man’s great enemy, man’s great friend.
Thanks for reading, and speak soon.
Either we learn to use technological time to our benefit, or else we are psychologically barred/prevented from doing so.
Even if you have a surplus of apples that are rotten, you still have a ‘surplus’ of apples.
I don’t even mean productivity so much as ‘unproductivity’, that is, direct action against our own best interests.
I am not arguing that time was not wasted before. I am arguing that it was not wasted by something so abhorrent as watching a screen for hundreds of hours, by pure consumption over any sort of production at all.
It is for this reason that taking a shower or going for a walk is thought to be conducive to thinking: you are already accomplishing something else and thinking becomes the secondary activity, carrying no pressure to come up with any thought.