All the Time


The Simpsons, 20th Century Fox

From Philosophy Now:

To know that it is 4:30 is to be at 4:30, and also to be looking on 4:30 as if from a temporal outside. So in subjecting time to timing, we seem to have succeeded in stepping to one side of time in some respect, while of course, remaining in it.

So, while we are pulling time out of the jaws of physics, we must not forget what an amazing, and deeply puzzling, activity ‘timing’ is. And its consequences are immeasurable. It transforms social life into a multitude of intermeshing ensembles harmonised by timepieces. We watch time and time watches us; and the portability of the watch compared with, say, the obelisk, locks together the watching and the watched more intimately. Inside these ever more tightly drawn temporal meshes, the clock rules our every moment. The living rhythms spelt out in our breathing, our walking and our beating hearts, are overridden by something totally different, symbolised by the way the watch we consult with fast-beating heart clasps our wrist, seeming to strangle our pulse. We dance to a rhythm of the shared day, of the common world, of the universe, that’s imposed and embraced: it is ours and not ours.

This is not all bad, of course. Our lives are vastly enriched by keeping track of the time, and we are collectively and individually empowered by co-ordination: dancing to the music of clock time, we can work together more effectively to meet and anticipate our basic needs, to generate ever more complex ways of exploiting nature, and to erect defences against a universe that has no particular care for us. And we must not underestimate what an extraordinary achievement this is. To take a salient example: the operating theatre. There is the surface orchestration of the lives of all the experts (surgeons, nurses, technicians, anaesthetists, cleaners, and engineers) necessary to make the procedure happen safely. But beneath the task of getting them all to the operating theatre at the right time, there is an almost bottomless infrastructure of temporally co-ordinated life.

Think of the engineer responsible for making sure the complex machinery in the theatre works, at the right time. He has to arrive on time, and his journey will have involved a multitude of conductors of his private orchestra of activities – ranging from the alarm clock he set to wake him up, to the traffic lights whose efficient, centrally-regulated working made sure that he was not held up forever in jammed traffic. His assumption of his present post as hospital engineer will also be the end stage of a long journey that has depended on meeting with others at pre-set times. His skills, for example, will have involved a multitude of people whose tabled time, set out in a curriculum, will have meshed with his, so that he was able to benefit from their expertise. The equipment on which he learned his skills, either directly or as illustrations of principles, had to be manufactured, tested, delivered, maintained and demonstrated by an endless army of individuals turning up on time and timing their activities to fit in with the activities of others (including the activity of timing the performance of the machinery). The equipment will itself have a multitude of components based on clocks, visible and hidden, created by other clock-watchers on physical principles whose discovery and application and commercialisation involved yet more armies of clock-drilled people. At every point in his life, our theatre engineer will have been borne up by myriads of clock-conducted fellows.

“A Hasty Report From A Tearing Hurry“, Raymond Tallis, Philosophy Now