Bob Garfield: This is an On-The-Media Podcast extra. I'm Bob Garfield. 2020, the year of authoritarianism, of isolation, of deadly pandemic, is about to be over, but then again, say for a new calendar, what really separates the end of 2020 from the beginning of 2021. We'll still be in the midst of a pandemic depending upon the day of the week. Depending upon the time of day, it can feel either like we're inching toward a better future or treading water in a perpetual state of deja vu. Since news of the Coronavirus first reached our shores, our plight mostly has been framed in terms of time, from how long it takes for the virus to take hold.
Speaker 1: Most estimates of the incubation period range from 1 to 14 days.
Bob: To how long will be sheltering inside waiting for a vaccine.
Speaker 2: When do you get the majority, the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated so you can get that umbrella of herd immunity? I believe if we're efficient about it, and we convince people to get vaccinated, we can accomplish that by the end of the late spring, early summer.
Bob: To what all the stoppage of time is doing to our relationships.
Speaker 3: Millions of families across the USA are sheltering in place, but instead of bringing them closer, some married couples are saying it's time at least when the crisis is over to go their separate ways and file for divorce.
Bob: Our pocketbooks.
Speaker 4: People could not pay their rent this past month and rent is due again in a week.
Bob: We spend our lives bound to a clock and a calendar that tells us what to do and what to expect, but now there are more than 20 million Americans jobless, untethered from routine, hundreds of thousands fighting a virus that could cut their times on earth dramatically, and all of us weighed out a life stoppage of unknown duration. We may find ourselves outside of time, passing it but incapable of marking it.
Speaker 5: Time now is the most important question of the morning.
Speaker 6: Yes. What day is it with Todd Meany? [music]
Speaker 7: It's Friday.
Bob: Back in April, which feels like yesterday and also like a lifetime ago, I spoke with astronomer and anthropologist, Antony Aveni, who told me that to understand our current time consciousness, we have to return to the land before time, or at least time as we know it, 5th century Babylonia, where they invented time as we know it.
Antony Aveni: They devised our 360 day a year, and then began to break it down into hours by using the stick in the ground, the sundial. It starts with religion and the idea of having to pray to God or gods at the same time, the better he will hear us, and that's what leads to the division of time into parts of the day, certain intervals where you have to begin prayer.
Bob: Before time as we know it, people were doing what exactly to order their lives?
Antony: They used all kinds of devices, there's a carved bone from the shores of Lake Tanganyika dated to 30,000 BC with little marks that indicate the days that lead up to full moon and the days that lead back to new moon, banded candles, hourglasses, water clocks, which would be a tank filled with water, with a hole punched in the bottom, and you would gradually drip away time. We've always been conscious of our time, but before the rise of the city, in most cultures of the world, the sensing of time is the sensing of work time and playtime, the time to eat, the time to bring the animals home. That's why so many of the early calendars have the months of the year named after the activity performed in that time period.
We have our harvest moon and our hunter's moon. These come from Native America. Time is the activity, it's not an abstract phenomenon apart from the activity, which is what we in the modern West have made it.
Bob: People were celestially marking time, but not measuring it in increments, that required calendars and clocks. When did the mechanical clock show up?
Antony: The earliest record we have of anything comes from the pendulum clock, which was invented in 1298, give or take a decade. That is a really interesting phenomenon because there you take the beat of nature, that back and forth movement of the pendulum, which mirrors in a very small scale, the rhythm of time that we see for example, in the rising and the falling of the tides, and then we adapted to a pendulum. We connect that pendulum then to an escapement that moves a bunch of toothed wheels that control the hands of the clock.
Bob: This was the iPhone of the 13th and 14th century, right? It was technology that had a dramatic influence on society.
Antony: When the city rose and we had centers of trade, there was the necessity to establish efficiency and productivity in the workplace, and in Munich, you have the famous Glockenspiel and Marienplatz that shines out all of the bells, the different tones of the bells, and the number of chimes are to be understood by the shearers and the cutters and the weavers who are now told by the friendly face of that pendulum clock in the center of town, what to do and when to do it. Before that clock, one determined when to go to work by flipping a coin early in the morning, when you could barely see the sun, and if you could tell heads from tails, it was time to go to work.
Bob: I suppose it's not such a great leap from measuring time to that measurement becoming a dominant organizing principle of our lives. "Oh, my gosh, 8:00 in the morning already, got to start fermenting the mead." What they called the quantitative revolution.
Antony: Yes, that's the giant step into the abstraction of nature. It's taking away from nature the flow of time. It doesn't matter to me where the sun is, and who cares where the moon is. My workday is being regulated by now what I have on my cell phone that I used to wear around my wrist, and before that, the bells that I used to listen to tell me what the hour was.
Bob: This conversation is occasioned by COVID-19 and maybe a sort of wrinkle in time that has been cast upon society. Curiously, time consciousness, as you described it also began in the midst of a pandemic, the black plague. You write that the effect then was Europeans becoming more tethered to time than ever before.
Antony: Yes. "Use your time well," said the priest. I think in a very real way, what's happened to us now with this pandemic is that time has released its disciplinary hold on us. Now we're being reminded about maybe some of the things we ought to be thinking about or haven't been thinking enough about, and that happened during the plague, and it happened in 911. Whenever you get some tremendous event that grinds time to a halt, you get outside of that ticking clock and you start thinking about what matters in life.
Bob: We don't necessarily have much time ahead of us, let's make the most of what little remains.
Antony: We're not used to thinking about these things, and for some of us, it's frightening. "What am I going to do with the time I have left? How much time will I have?" We all know somebody who's been affected, and maybe even someone who's died from it, and so we're suddenly very time conscious in a real sense.
Bob: We have Netflix to kind of distract us and to kill time. Back during the black plague, at least in the cities, they had the pendulum clock, which eventually became a sort of overlord.
Antony: Well, it happened over the necessity to make the worker as productive as possible, and of course, it got a lot worse with the Industrial Revolution. The railroads had a lot to do with this strict time structure, people begin to realize that if you're in a moving vehicle, the time inside that vehicle is not the same as the time outside. We're sitting here in New York and we know that back in San Francisco, the sun is a lot lower in the sky, so then we begin to develop time zones and Greenwich Mean Time where we all go by a single clock that takes effect all the way around the world. This mechanization of time, then becomes a frustration to us. It's reflected in Charlie Chaplin's famous movie, Modern Times, 1936, where you see him ground up in the wheels of the clock.
If you're old enough to remember I Love Lucy, from back in the '50s, there you see Lucy and her friend on an assembly line, and they're trying to put all the chocolates in boxes and the machine is running wild and they can't keep up with it.
Speaker 8: If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, you're fired.
Speaker 9: Yes, ma'am.
Speaker 8: Let [unintelligible 00:09:31].
Antony: Time is money, and it's pretty damn stressful. When I think now in this time, where all of a sudden, the cuffs are off, and God, what are we going to do? We're going nuts. We don't know what to do. We're binging and gaining weight, and well, as you say, watching Netflix.
Bob: Much as we now say that information is power, leaders and would-be leaders came to understand that time is power. I'm thinking in particular of the French Revolution.
Antony: During the French revolution, they tried to get away from this silly notion of naming days and weeks, and months and units of time after gods and goddesses. They wanted a decimal system, a 10 day work week, 10 hours in a day, 10 minutes in an hour, workers didn't like so much having to work nine days to get one day off. It lasted 13 years until Napoleon took it back in 1806. It's one of the innovations in time keeping the didn't work out, and there were others.
Bob: Now, forgive me for going backwards, but 300 years before that there was an imposed change in marking the days that did take hold the Gregorian calendar.
Antony: The fact is the number of days in a year isn't a nice round 360 it's 365. In fact, if you measure it more closely, it's 365.2422 days. How do you make, allow number of days out of a fraction like that? We have a leap year every four years, three years of 365 and one of 366, and the average would be 365 and a quarter. That was all well and good, except that time still gets out of whack, and it went all the way from the Roman Empire when that system was installed up to 1585, when Pope Gregory found that the seasons it gained about 15, 20 days on the clock, more than that, actually.
It became necessary to actually skip 11 days of the year to lock the two back together again. One went from October the 4th to October the 15th. That was the next day. Imagine if your chariot payment were due on the 15th and all of a sudden you've lost 11 days that throws everything out of luck, but that was a change that had to be made to put the seasons back in line with the calendar.
Bob: Now, none of this timekeeping is actually arbitrary. All systems you write are originating and something tangible in the natural world, but you write about man grabbing hold of the controls "we changed the order. We manipulated time processed, compressed, and packaged it to conform to our perceived needs."
Antony: Time is a recognition that there's an order to our states of consciousness. The model I like to use is knots on a string, the events, the things that happen. I woke up this morning. I brushed my teeth. I had my breakfast. I received this phone call. They're all knots on a string. It's our recognition of that order of states of consciousness and the existence of a duration in between them. That's what we're dealing with now in this awful pandemic, that long duration, the space on the string between the knots. You can say it's a string that coils around if you believe in cyclic time, like so many cultures in the world and not the Western culture, but it coils and it comes back to where it was.
I suppose you could say, "Well, yes, after Sunday night, there's Monday morning." We can think of the knots on the string coiling around. We can say, "No, it's a straight line, tilted upward that's progress," because we move along these knots on a string, these events in our lives that lead to what? They lead to a better world, or if you're in a Christian mood, there's a second coming where I suppose the string will be cut, and then those of us who've done the good life will then live in a timeless eternity, but there's no question with whatever model you use that we've mechanized it. We've changed it into a machine, and we think of it as being that machine rather than just this recognition of the order of our states of consciousness.
Bob: Tony, here we are in this place where uncertainty and fear are all wrapped up in the metrics of time. Duration that you mentioned is a confounding mystery productivity has tanked worldwide. What does this suggest to you?
Antony: Well, here we are all of us in an extended time out in a very high-intensity interactive business. I'm trying to imagine the timeout in basketball or football that goes on, and on, and on, and when we get back to playing the game, we've gotten our wish to loosen the shackles that bind us. What do we do? Maybe it's time for us to go out and have a good look at nature. Whence, we derived this whole notion of timekeeping. Watch the stars move, watch the plants sprout, watch the birds and you'll understand what time it was before we undertook this process of a hyper mechanization and abstraction.
We weren't compelled to do this. We caused it. We decided to do it for the sake of productivity. It's really pretty much what it is. I doubt we'll ever lose the idea of acquiring material wealth, but for some of us, maybe the time out will cause us to reflect on where all of this came from.
Bob: Tony. Thank you very much.
Antony: Bob, wonderful to talk to you.
Bob: Anthony Aveni is a Professor Emeritus of Astronomy in Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University. His new book, Star Stories: Constellations and People, is just published by Yale University Press.
Bob: There's this thing that's happened at least to me as pandemic place havoc with our present. It's the loss of connection to the future. Not knowing what the passage of time will yield has left me unmoored spinning in space as if my inner gyroscope were on the Fritz. We all know about sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, but there's that often unmentioned six sense proprioception, the unconscious awareness of our body position and movement. Could there be, I wonder a seventh sense of proprioception of time? If so, it's gone missing, not just that I can't fathom what the world will be like in a year or a month. It's that in losing a sense of future. I've also all but lost the present ambitions, duties, desires, even the sense beyond hunger and fatigue of life itself.
I cannot be alone in this, because time isn't just a metric. It's a gravity that keeps us tethered to the world by anticipating future seconds and minutes and days, we're able to feel traction and trajectory, but without those hidden comforts of time comes this vertigo, this loss of chronological bearings.
Truthfully, I've been crying a lot. Please forgive the mewling. God knows half the world's population and 40 million Americans live perpetually on the brink, and now who knows how many are sliding toward the abyss, not to mention the dead, so yes, perspective. You might also rightly wonder since we're all struggling in our own particular ways, what my personal flavor of distress has to do with you?
Well, this, my loved ones are elsewhere, and so my tenuous connection to the gravity of life has been reduced to this program. It's production, my Zoomed in colleagues, the [unintelligible 00:18:17] immutable unforgiving 50 minute show clock, and of course I raise on Detra.
The audience, you turn out to be my gyroscope. You are how I gain something resembling purchase in the overwhelming midst of disorientation. You are what stops the tears. I don't know,woe is me and cherished are you?
Katya Rogers: This is OTM Producer Katya Rogers. Although he's still deeply affected by what is going on around us as are we all. I promise Bob is feeling much better than he did when he first wrote and recorded that essay, but one thing is still true. Our appreciation of you, our listeners. If you want to reciprocate and show your appreciation of us, now is the perfect time to make a year-end donation of however much you can afford. Go to on the media.org and hit, donate, or text OTM to 70101. Happy holidays.
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