Deep Time: The Tyranny of Time

TTBOOK and Center for Humans and Nature present Deep Time
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Original Air Date: 
June 03, 2023

When you’re on the clock, you’re always running out of time – because in our culture, time is money. The relentless countdown is making us and the planet sick. But clock time isn’t the only kind. There are older, deeper rhythms of time that sustain life. What would it be like to live more in tune with nature’s clocks?

Deep Time is a series all about the natural ecologies of time from To The Best Of Our Knowledge and the Center for Humans and Nature. We'll explore life beyond the clock, develop habits of "timefulness" and learn how to live with greater awareness of the many types of time in our lives.

Jenny Odell

Lately it’s been feeling like time is speeding up.  Whether it’s the news cycle, social media, the information economy or global warming, the pace of life is accelerating beyond what many of us can handle. Jenny Odell blames the clock. 

David Rooney.

Clocks control us – but who controls clocks? David Rooney gives us a brief political history of clocks. And a look at their future.


Show Details 📻
June 03, 2023
January 06, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's "To The Best of Our Knowledge," I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- [Participant] That's too long.

- [Anne] Okay.

- [Participant] Sorry about that.

- [Anne] My chair creaked, so I'm gonna do that again. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this is "To The Best of Our Knowledge." This is "To The Best of Our Knowledge." Hi, everyone, it's Anne. It's Anne.

- [Electronic Anne Voiceovers] It's Anne.

- [Anne] Anne Strainchamps. Now, I'll give you a take two on that. Retake. Welcome to "To The of Our Knowledge."

- [Electronic Anne Voiceovers] "To The Best of Our Knowledge."

- [Anne Voiceover] Okay.

- [Anne] Okay. I'm gonna give you that one again.

- [Participant] Yeah.

- [Anne] I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this

- [Anne Voiceover] Strainchamps.

- [Anne] Segment lot.

- You are listening-

- Do that once more.

- Once more.

- I'm gonna do that once more. Slow down.

- [Participant] Down.

- [Anne] S-sorry this has taken so long. So here, I'll tell you the story that I was going to begin with, which is that two hours ago, I was sitting in front of my, computer and I was trying to put my thoughts together for this conversation. And I was having a hard time focusing. And the minutes were ticking by, and I was feeling increasingly anxious, kind of incompetent, panicky, ashamed, this whole tide of toxic emotions. And then I thought, well, maybe that's as good a place to begin as any.

- [Jenny] Yeah, I love that. Especially because that's kind of how I started.

- [Anne] This is Jenny Odell, a writer who knows what it's like to feel anxious about time. What's an example for you of time feeling painful?

- [Jenny] I mean, there's like the everyday granular sense, and then there's the big sense, right?

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Jenny] Yesterday, that report came out about climate change, and like I really felt a sense of time running out. That's like a big sort of existential feeling. And then, there's the very small every day, which is like, I'm someone who takes a lot of public transportation. And I feel like I'm always running after buses. I'm always running after buses and trains. And then, I'm often thinking about the person who's waiting for me on the other side, and how I'm wasting their time. And I think about every minute of them sitting there waiting. You know?

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Jenny] I mean, I've had the same anxiety dream for my entire life, which is that I'm running out of time. Some version of I'm late or I'm not prepared for something. Time is my enemy. I think I first really noticed it after the 2016 election. I felt like my trains of thought were really short. There was this kind of urgency all the time, always needing to check in. There's an assumption that something has always happened in the few seconds that you've been away. You're always coming back and reacting, and then checking back for more. And I also felt on a physical level, like I was living in constant fight or flight, Constantly sort of bracing for an impact that was gonna come. That's an unsustainable way to live, you know? It's actually really bad for you. I remember just thinking like this feels bad. And I want to try to find a way out of this. And I also wanna understand why.

- [Announcer] Coordinated Universal Time.

- [Anne] From "To The Best of Our Knowledge" and the Center for Humans and Nature, welcome to "Deep Time" episode one, "The Tyranny of Time." So, I came across an article the other day with a title that kinda stopped me in my tracks. You ready? "There are 10,080 minutes in a week. Here's how to be the boss of all of them." That turns out to be a line from a Microsoft VP who invented a time management technique called Time Boxing, which I guess is meant to help people set priorities and take control of their lives. But to me, it's a perfect illustration of something deeply wrong about our relationship with time. When did time become money? Why do we think faster is better? And how did we decide that learning to chop our days into minutes and seconds is a good way to live? This is what Jenny Odell decided to investigate in two books. The first called "How to Do Nothing." The second called "Saving Time." In which she traces a direct line from the invention of clocks, to the kind of efficiency software that monitors remote workers' keystrokes, counts warehouse workers' steps, and times their bathroom breaks.

- [Jenny] It's a very painful history to revisit because there's so much coercion, and you really see this struggle and loss of power on the part of workers. It's not even just necessarily that people are having to work faster, but that that time is so minutely broken up and orchestrated. I'm just thinking about the interfaces that people use in call centers, right? How choreographed that is, the actions that you're supposed to take, and the order that you're supposed to do them in, and how little downtime you're given. And then, the fact that a lot of them will use competitive leaderboards for everyone who's there, like showing different people's progress. And it's just extremely micromanaged. It was striking to me how the Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times," where he's on the assembly line trying to keep up. It feels historical. And then, as I was looking at more contemporary examples, it was sort of like, oh, this is alive and well.

- [Anne] I've never actually seen "Modern Times."

- [Jenny] Oh, it's great. Yeah, I highly recommend it-

- So you said.

- [Jenny] Yeah. Yeah.

- [Anne] What's your favorite scene?

- [Jenny] My favorite scene is by far, I should preface this by saying that I am a person who really appreciates dark humor. There's a scene where a sort of salesperson shows up at the factory with this new innovation called The Feeding Machine, which is supposed to eliminate the lunch hour.

- [Anne] Oh my God.

- [Jenny] By feeding a worker without them having to move. And so, Charlie Chaplin's character is the Guinea pig for the demo. And it's a rotating platter of different foods, it's like a bowl of soup, and I can't remember what the other foods are, but there's a corn cob spinner? It's mechanical, right? So, it's like spinning the corn, so that you don't have to move your body or your head. But it starts malfunctioning and going too fast, slamming the corn cob into his face over and over again.

- [Anne] Jenny, this is just what we were talking about!

- [Jenny] Yeah.

- [Anne] But this is what I love about the work you're doing, kind of historicizing the time sense that we live inside, and that by now, we've all completely internalized. How far back do you in your head go when you wanna tell the history of how time got quantified and commodified? Like where's a starting point for you?

- [Jenny] I went back to the monks, European monks. The Cistercian monks in particular, who I think, in their activities, and the way they organize things, you can start to see like a kind of obsession with punctuality.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [Jenny] And it was very tied to the idea of labor hours. Counting the hours of work that people were doing.

- [Anne] You write some about how quantified time wound up getting exported around the world by colonists?

- [Jenny] Yeah. There's a really great account of that process that's specific to British colonies called "The Colonisation of Time." So, you have European, or in this case, British colonists showing up with this idea that there is something morally good about the idea of regular work hours, and a Sabbath punctuated week. And they look around, and what they see is people who have no sense of time. This idea of the timeless native, right?

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Jenny] But obviously, there was like a fully formed sense of time there already that was just not what they thought of as being time. There's this amazing passage that he quotes, I think it's a missionary's daughter who's riding home to Britain saying, "Our clocks just arrived." We got here, and we didn't have any clocks, and the chronometer stopped working, and so we've been living without time." . You know? And she says, "It's very comforting to hear the tick tick and the ding ding." Wow.

- [Jenny] So.

- [Anne] Wow. But it's fascinating how, I guess morality is built into this sense of time around then too, because it's so linked to Christian missionaries, and if you see the rest of the world as unsaved, and you think you're showing up to save them with the Bible at the clock.

- [Jenny] Yeah, right. It's kind of seen as like a civilizing force, or something like that. In that same book, "The Colonisation of Time," he quotes a mission publication where they have this long paragraph, it's basically cultural propaganda that's like, how many hours do you have in God's bank?

- [Anne] Whoa.

- [Jenny] And it's all that language just mixed together. It's at once economic and moral.

- [Anne] Wow.

- [Jenny] This is something that you also see in the Protestant work ethic, where it's like, yeah, you're supposed to work really hard to make a lot of money, but that's not so that you can then spend that money. It's because it's just actually a moral religious imperative to work really hard.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Jenny] And the money is considered God's money, it's not even really yours.

- [Anne] I dunno, that just says so much about psychological attitudes toward time that are so deeply part of my makeup, I don't know how to get rid of them.

- [Jenny] I mean, it's hard.

- [Anne] No! I think it is so liberating to see where that idea came from, and to watch it form because it kind of frees you from feeling like, oh, I'm just a bad person because I spent the entire morning sitting on my couch knitting, and I should have been doing something more worthwhile.

- [Jenny] Yeah. When I have that feeling, I'm like, worth it to who? I don't know, I'm morbidly fascinated by thinking about how that culturally and historically specific way of thinking sort of moved inside. It's now the thing that I see when I look in the mirror on a very personal level.

- [Anne] Yeah. How do you think that happened? 'Cause I was trying to think about that, and I was thinking, I suddenly felt intensely guilty for having ever sent my kids to school. I mean, they're now grown up. They're ruined already. But no, but I kinda felt like, oh my God, that is what the public school system does! It teaches us how to live on factory time. I mean, kindergarten, you have a child whose time is relatively unstructured or naturally structured, I'm hungry, or it's time for bed. And suddenly, you break their day up into arbitrary 45-minute long periods and a bell rings. It's like breaking a horse.

- [Jenny] Yeah, it is, it is. As you know, like I have that part of the book, where it's like a report card that I made for myself as a very young child-

- [Anne] Oh, I forgot that.

- [Jenny] Who can barely write. Like.

- [Anne] Oh my God, I forgot that.

- [Jenny] That's how much I internalized that system of performance and evaluation. And I remember learning like fast is good. Fast and accurate like a machine.

- [Anne] So, I wanted to ask about the relationship between our sense of time and climate change. 'Cause you do make a connection to climate change as being an outgrowth of the kind of time that our culture created.

- [Jenny] Yeah. It's difficult to encapsulate, and I think the best way that I found to describe it is like, for a person alive now, right? It's very easy to feel squeezed between two feelings about time that seem deeply unrelated. And one is, I'm working against the clock, and I'm running out of time, and I'm trying to be more productive. And then, the other is, you're looking out the window, and the sort of climate clock is getting more and more out of whack. And there's a sense of time running out on that scale, which feels very different. It's like the moment that I describe in the book of when the skies were red here in the Bay Area from the wildfires, and it was actually getting darker between 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM, and I'm sitting at my desk working, and I can see my neighbor across the street working. We're on work time, as this other thing is playing out outside that we can both see, right? And that's not a good feeling.

- [Anne] Since reading your book, I've been trying to not live within just one form of time. Not having mono time trying to, I don't know, go for a walk and think about the layers and layers of earth and rock under my feet, and try to think my way a little bit into geological time? Maybe it's like learning other languages, so I'm not just speaking one, that feels healthier.

- [Jenny] Yeah, it sounds like you're living the term that I use in the book chrono diversity.

- [Anne] I like that.

- [Jenny] Right? I don't think I'm the first person to have used that word, but it is like speaking different languages, or having a different lens on realities. It feels better, but it also, for me personally, has been a source of inspiration. I mean, it's spring right now, right? Like, the buckeye tree that I talk about in the book as kind of my personal clock is very active right now. The leaves have come back, there's a cycle, but these leaves are not the same as last year's leaves. That kind of, it almost like reawakens the possibility that I could do something new. That I could do something unexpected, and I could respond to the moment that I'm in a new way. Because there's so much right now that can make you feel like we're just kinda in into the end.

- [Anne] I have this voice in my head that just keeps saying, "Ask her about death." So, I think I need to ask her about death. 'Cause we talked about how it's this historical construct that we all have this feeling that we're running out of time, except that, of course, humans are the only animal that are aware that we are literally running out of time. We will all face an end date.

- [Jenny] Yeah. I think it's very related in the fact that one of the, I think corollaries to this notion of squeezing value out of your time is the notion that your life is like a product that you could get more or less value out of. If you're not doing it right, you're not getting enough value out of it. And I think that's a notion that's very tied to individual achievement and productivity, and not so much to the sense of like connection or encounter, or being changed by something. And so, yeah, I do have a chapter where I kind of talk about death, and I honestly think about this story all the time, still, the children's story that has haunted me ever since I read it, about the young boy who is given a ball by a witch, and then if he pulls the thread out of it, time will go faster, but the thread can only be pulled out, it can't be put back in. So, he predictably pulls it too much because he's impatient to get through his life, and then hits this horror of, he's an old man, he never experienced his life. And then, the witch luckily comes back and takes the ball away, and makes him a young boy again. But I remember reading that-

- [Anne] That's a terrible story!

- [Jenny] It's terrible, and I understand the moral was supposed to be like, enjoy your life, and be in the moment. But that actually, to me, as a child, was just a horror story about the irreversibility of time. You know? So, it's just like terrifying. And something I didn't write this in the book, but because I've been thinking about that story so much. Something that I noticed later is the idea of the thread. It's a single thread that belongs to that boy. And if I try to imagine a utopian version of that story, it would be one in which there is no ball, it's just threads that are woven together. Because that is actually the reality. My life leaves an impression on other lives. Other lives leave impressions on mine. People who have passed away and now like live on in the way that I do things, and the way that I think about things. And I think that's how I prefer to think about my life as being very interwoven with these other lives.

- [Anne] Jenny Odell. We were talking about her most recent book, "Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock" Next up, science historian David Rooney grew up around the clocks. His parents ran a clock repair business, and working on antique time pieces taught him that keeping time is never simple.

- [David] Every clock that my parents would restore for a customer, they would do a bit of research into the history of that clock, or the mega. What they told me was that every clock has a story to tell.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] And I felt that they then started to add up to bigger stories and bigger stories.

- [Anne] And we'll hear more of them next. You're listening to the first episode of a new project called "Deep Time." A partnership with our friends at the Center for Humans and Nature. We're talking about clock time this week, but in future episodes, we'll explore other kinds of time. Geological, biological, cosmic, ancestral, and more. The underlying question, what would it mean to live beyond the clock? I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this is "To The Best of Our Knowledge." From Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Welcome back to "Deep time." This is episode one, "The Tyranny of Time."

- [David] At eight years old, my father went away for a year to a clock-making conservation restoration college in the south of England.

- [Anne] David Rooney is a writer and museum curator.

- [David] We're close to my birthday. My father came back home, one of the rare visits, and he brought a present. Something he'd rescued from a dumpster. And it was a clock. Just a really cheap, probably 1940s, battery-operated mantel clock. Somebody had it broken, the glass, had broken, the mechanism had stopped working, they'd thrown it out. He rescued it, he worked hard on it in the evenings. He changed the glass, he polished it up, he repaired the mechanism, and he brought it and gave it to me. He brought it back to life! People didn't have their own clock as a kid when I was growing up. And there it was. And it made me think actually, that clocks do have lives. I wonder why we care so much about clocks the way we do. Why do we give a clock or a watch as a retirement gift? Why do we pass on our clocks and watches to our families? Well, they've got us in them. They've got life in them. Anyway, my father breathed life into that one. So, most of the time, I would be away at school, or I'd be in my room doing my homework. But at weekends, I played a role, a tiny role in the business. Now, we know that most mechanical clocks tick, right? There's a tick and there's a tock. But that ticking and tocking has to be even. Turned out I had a really good ear. That the evenness of the tick was the same as the tock. And if it wasn't, the clock needed to be adjusted, and that was my job. That was the job my father gave me was right, I've said it up as well as I think, now you go and listen to it. Is the beat even? And I would listen to it, and listen to it. It's tick-tock, tick-tock while I make an adjustment. Tick-tock, tick-tock, that's it, you've got it. What that meant was that I was getting really close to these remarkable devices, my ear right up to them. And that stayed with me I guess.

- [Anne] David Rooney has been listening to clocks and their stories ever since. He was a curator at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, that's home of Greenwich meantime, and at the London Science Museum. And he's written one of the best books I know on the history of clocks. It's called "About Time." In which he makes the case, that from ancient sundials to satellites orbiting earth, clocks have always been about one thing, power.

- [David] Why are there clock towers in our towns and cities? Why might there be sundials on the wall of a church or in a public space? Why do we wear watchers? Why are there clocks in our computers or on the office wall? I got very interested in ancient Rome. Really, it was ancient Rome, the Roman Republic, and then the Roman Empire that I think started to use clocks for the everyday control of the citizen.

- [Anne] What happened?

- [David] It was the year 263 BCE, Rome's military leaders had just won a decisive victory, military victory on the island of Sicily. And they'd taken the city of Catania. Part of signaling the success was to bring treasures back to Rome, to show the Roman people that Rome had won. Often, that would mean treasure, it would be gold and silver. But what the Roman military leaders did in 263 BCE was to bring a sundial, a sundial from Catania. The military consul, Manius Valerius Maximus had that sundial mounted on a tall column in the Roman Forum. At the heart of Rome, the most visible, the most politically powerful space in the entire republic. The people of Rome hated this sundial.

- [Anne] No, really?

- [David] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Very quickly, more sundials were installed around Rome, and then soon enough, across the Roman Republic. And there's an extraordinary quotation. A playwright made a character talk about how he felt about these new sundials arriving in Rome. These are the words of the people on the street right then. "May the gods damn the man who first discovered the hours, who first set up a sundial here to cut and hack my day so wretchedly into small pieces! You know, when I was a boy, my stomach was the only sundial, it used to warn me to eat, but now, what there is isn't eaten unless the sun says so. In fact, this town is so stuffed with sundials, that most people are crawling along shriveled up with hunger."

- [Anne] That is so contemporary!

- [David] That is, that could have been written yesterday in any office.

- [Anne] Wow!

- [David] Exactly. And so, that idea of these clocks as being timekeepers, which order our everyday lives hour by hour, and you have to obey them, you start to look at all clock towers and think, well, who has set these there? Governments, emperors, military leaders. Big Ben was installed in the Palace of Westminster by the British government.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] Clock towers in India were built there by the British Raj ruling India. Clock towers built in the Ottoman Empire were put there by ottoman leaders, and they were there to keep us in order to this day.

- [Anne] And yet time itself is a natural resource, surely. It's an intrinsic essence of the universe, our birthright, even in the sense that we're all born with a lifespan. So, how did time become a tool for rulers?

- [David] It's interesting, isn't it? That on the one hand, time is absolutely natural. It's the rotation of the earth, it's the orbits of the planets. And we're hardwired to those patterns of daylight and darkness, and the passing of the seasons. But the way we experience time, it's so artificial, it's so human-made.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] And then, I wanted to get behind why do those humans make them?

- [Anne] Right. We've been talking about political rule, but some of the earliest clocks that you write about were linked to faith, and were created by and for the church, which is also interesting. Our concept of faith, and the universe of divinity and awe, and the links between all of those. So, first of all, obviously if you want to gather people together to pray at a particular time, you need a way of marking the liturgical cycle. But is that all? Why else do you think faith and timekeeping go together?

- [David] In many ways, what they were doing was, well, actually it was twofold. One was just automating a practice which already took place. So if you were already gonna be striking a bell at certain times of the day or night to call people to prayer, then you might get a machine to do it for you. That's why the clock was invented in Europe in the 13th century. It's a mechanical bell ringer. It saved somebody having to stay up all night. Those were the simple devices, but the more complex devices that do go right back to the early Islamic period and definitely later, was this idea of what you might call astronomical clocks, which could be highly complex, could be twice the height of a human, could be a giant clock mounted high on the wall of a cathedral, and it was showing the cycles, the movement of the heavenly bodies. Astronomical or astrological as well, bearing in mind that astrology was as important as religion.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] Everybody in Europe believed in a god, everybody believed that movements of the heavenly bodies affected our lives here on earth.

- [Anne] So that's interesting, so these early clocks had an element, almost an oracular element to them.

- [David] Absolutely. If you studied those clocks hard enough, it would tell you how to live your life for the next week, month, quarter, season, year, lifetime. What those clocks were doing was acting as human-made replicas of God's perfect universe.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] So that we can effectively worship it in our cathedrals or in our mosques. And I think what those clocks also did would've been to show you your very small part in that system. In other words, to say you are connected to everything else in the universe. So, there was a kind of a moral sentence here that shows you how you should act. So is not to upset the rhythms of the universe, the functioning of the universe.

- [Anne] So today, I perceive, at least I think a lot of us do, that there's a tension between mechanical, manmade time, and what I think of as natural seasonal time. These larger seasonal rhythms and cycles that we are increasingly pulled away from. There is no seasonal cycle in internet time, but it sounds like in medieval and Renaissance Europe, that tension might not have been there when people looked at a clock.

- [David] I genuinely think that people in medieval and Renaissance Europe had a much more sophisticated connection with time than we do now.

- [Anne] Really? How so?

- [David] For just the reasons you've described. All we see is the next tick, the next second, the next day. Do our clocks help us think about our lifetime? Do they help us look up and out? Do they help lift our eyes from the mundaneness of our daily lives, and think about the bigger stories, the bigger universe that we're in? I don't think they do. But here's something that's interesting, which is, you have to pull me back from this cul-de-sac that we're gonna go into.

- [Anne] No, I love this.

- [David] We talk about hours. We divide the day into 24 hours, and that's been the case since ancient Egypt. Three and a half thousand years, let's say. But it's not that simple. What is an hour? So, there are two types of hour through history. You can divide the time between sunrise and sunset into 12 hours. And then, the time between sunset and sunrise into 12 hours. And if you were keeping time because of your religion where you might need to get up to pray at sunrise or sunset, then that's really important that you mark sunrise and sunset in your time system. But of course, the length of daylight varies through the year, right?

- [Anne] Mmm.

- [David] Your day hours are gonna be a different length from your night hours, and every day, the length of your day hours and the length of your night hours is going to change just a little bit.

- [Anne] So, an hour wasn't always.

- [David] An hour was not fixed.

- [Anne] Wow.

- [David] An hour in this unequal hours system as it was called, an hour was one twelvth of the time between sunrise and sunset. They flexed. At the same time, there was also the equal hours system, which is how we think of 24 hours, which is you divide the whole period of daylight and darkness into 24 equal hours.

- [Anne] Wait, they had both at the same time?

- [David] They had both at the same time. Because if you were an astronomer, equal hours was what you needed. Daylight and darkness didn't matter when you're looking out at the stars.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [David] But if you were religious, keeping time for prayer, or if you were working in the fields and sunrise was important 'cause it depended on when you sold crops, or when you fed the pigs, really important that you had these unequal hours. So, you'd have those two systems in play in your society at the same time. Moreover, in many cases, it would be the same person operating both systems in their head. The astronomer was the same as the priest.

- [Anne] Wow. You said it was the Egyptians who decided there would be 12 hours. The Babylonians who decided there would be.

- [David] 60 minutes.

- [Anne] 60 minutes-

- [David] And 60 seconds.

- [Anne] That's right.

- [David] Yeah.

- [Anne] Why those numbers? Why, if you look at the dial of a clock, why is it 12? Why shouldn't it be 10? Why isn't it 6? I don't know, who decided on 12?

- [David] 12 is a useful number, it's got plenty of divisors. And then, you look at the question of 60, why is it 60 minutes and 60 seconds? And that was the Babylonians. And the answer there is that they already had a sophisticated numerical system, a mathematical system for manipulating numbers. And base 60 a sexagesimal system is a really good system for manipulating numbers. Pretty much everything divides into 60.

- [Anne] Oh wow.

- [David] And so, that system which they used elsewhere in their kind of, what we might now call scientific and administrative systems, could then be applied to time to help them reckon time. And it stuck. It stuck to the present day, and there's never really been anything competing against that system except decimal time.

- [Anne] Hmm.

- [David] Because scientists who use time aren't that bothered in so many scientific fields about hours and minutes, and seconds. They're interested in the fine subdivisions of a second. So if you're talking about a nanosecond or a millisecond, or a microsecond, which is what clockmakers in the physics labs making the finest clocks on earth today are talking about, its dividing seconds into tens and hundreds, and thousands, and ten thousands, and hundred thousands.

- [Anne] Oh, that's fascinating. Because that's the numerical system we use in the financial markets today, right? What's it called?

- [David] HFT.

- [Anne] Yes, high-frequency trading.

- [David] Exactly that.

- [Anne] Trading based on, I don't know, thousands of a second.

- [David] Much finer than that, yeah. It's microseconds, and some high-frequency trade is a trading at nanoseconds. Billions of a second scale-

- [Anne] Billionth of a second, oh my gosh.

- [David] I mean, those people are trading at the speed of light. The individual trades are usually very small, the profit on each is usually very small, but there are so many of them that they can build up into sizeable profits. I think high-frequency trading is about 50% of the US financial trading markets.

- [Anne] Oh, I had no idea.

- [David] Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a huge part.

- [Anne] But this is such an extraordinary story when you think about the earliest clocks we were talking about, to clocks that can not only time to the millionth of a second or the billionth of a second.

- [David] Yeah.

- [Anne] But are synchronized across the entire globe. And then, to think that the entire economy of the world's greatest empire at the moment, the United States, it depends on these clocks. And most of us aren't even aware they exist.

- [David] And they're real clocks. They're things in physical boxes. Right?

- [Anne] Really?

- [David] It's a real clock, which is gonna be the size of a shoe box, but kind of half the height. And it's beating time. It's not beating time using a pendulum or a balance wheel. There's no gears, but it's beating time using what is the pacemaker of clocks these days, which is atoms. The beat kept by one caesium atom in the universe will be identical to the beat kept by every other caesium atom in the universe. So, these clocks, real clocks in boxes in data centers are what modern capitalism is based on.

- [Anne] But you know the thing that I'm just kind of stunned by as you talk is that, just as in the ancient past, our contemporary time, so highly technological is still tied to nature. It's still tied to atoms! And I don't know what would change if I thought to myself, that I don't know, minute changes in the interest rate, that my bank charges might be tied to atoms. I don't know if that would change anything, maybe not. And yet, I crave some way of feeling that my relationship with time is somehow more natural than it feels. So, I don't know where to go with that.

- [David] Well, I'm gonna say something. Which is that something happened last year, which if it gets approved later this year, and it looks like it will, is gonna change humankind's relationship with time and nature irrevocably, and it will be a change, which will be the first change of its type in human recorded history.

- [Anne] Good God. Explain.

- [David] Strap in for this one.

- [Anne] We'll be back with more from David Rooney. I'm Ann Strainchamps, and this is episode one of "Deep Time" from "To The Best of Our Knowledge." Brought to you by Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. And we're back with David Rooney, picking up on the story of something new that is about to happen for the very first time in human history. Something that will change our entire relationship with time and the universe.

- [David] Since the dawn of time, we've measured time effectively by the rotation of the earth. The sun's shadow, right? That's how we tell the time on a sundial. So, when we see the shadow move, we're seeing the earth move. When you see the same star in the same position in the sky twice, one rotation of earth has happened. So, whether we measure time using telescopes or sundials, we're measuring earth rotation time. It was only in the late 20th century that we found a better way of keeping time.

- [Broadcaster] The first atomic clock was made at the National Physical Laboratory, and has been used there since 1955 for the accurate measurement of time and frequency.

- [David] The earth isn't actually a very good timekeeper. It speeds up and slows down as it rotates.

- [Anne] It wobbles a bit.

- [David] It wobbles, but also the speed is complex. If you imagine that the liquid core of earth is sloshing around over the internal rocky mantle, well, that sloshing around can't be modeled. And sometimes, that causes drag, which slows the earth down.

- [Broadcaster] A button is pressed, and the dial readings give the error the working standard. A complete measurement takes a few minutes, and the result is accurate to 1 part in 10,000 million.

- [David] Right, so, earth isn't a very good timekeeper. It turns out, that atoms are, so when in 1955, scientists in West London made the first successful atomic clock. Using cesium atoms, you've now got a clock more accurate than the rotating earth.

- [Broadcaster] Far more accurately, and far more easily than astronomical observations of the rotation of the earth.

- [Anne] And so, now if I Google, that connects me to an atomic clock, right?

- [David] Everything on earth now, all of the systems that require clock time, to make cell phones work, to make computers work, to make Zoom work, they're all using time from atomic clocks. But this comes back to the point about nature. We humans, animals, we're hardwired to those natural patterns of time, of daylight and darkness, of the passing of the seasons. And so, earth rotation time is important to us. And we accepted that as well in the 1960s and '70s. So, in the 1970s, a perfect compromise was enacted on the world, and it was called the leap second system. Which said, "Look, we're gonna use atomic clocks to keep time, but we're gonna measure earth rotation time using astronomy just as accurately as we always did." And if those two time scales looked like they're moving apart by more than nine tenths of a second, or rather, if earth rotation time is drifting away from the arrow straight timekeeping of atomic clocks, then we'll insert what's called a leap second, we'll add a second into the time scale, which effectively brings everything back together again. And it ties, earth rotation time, time as we experience it, natural time if you like, with the arrow straight uniform seconds of atomic clocks. So, we got the benefits of both.

- [Anne] How many leap seconds does one have to insert? I mean, how often do we insert a leap second?

- [David] By convention, there are two days in any year when a leap second can be inserted. That's June 30th and December 31st. And it happens at midnight. So, there are scientific bodies who are monitoring this all the time, and they can see, are we gonna insert a leap second? Do we need to insert a leap second or not?

- [Anne] So, it's not even just some global time czar who sits in an office.

- [David] Exactly.

- [Anne] Presses a button, and bing, the leap second is inserted. But no, it sounds like it's an army. Of time administrators.

- [David] There is a time czar who sits in their office just outside of Paris.

- [Anne] Really?

- [David] They're not pressing a button to change all the clocks. They're pressing a button which sends the email to everybody in the world who runs a clock system saying, on this date, at this time, you are commanded to add a second into your timescale. There's a giant industry of earth rotation time measurement all around the world, and also on the moon, by the way, mirrors that were placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts, still have lasers fired at them from Earth. And then, the beam comes back, and gives us a very, very careful measurement of Earth's position in space. And then, all of that is brought together in an office just outside of Paris. Can't remember what it's called.

- [Anne] But that's fantastic! Is this one, have you been there?

- [David] I've not, not yet.

- [Anne] I think that has to go on your bucket list. But so, what's the big change? You said some huge monumental change is about to happen-

- [David] Huge monumental change. There's been agitation to abolish the leap second system for years now. It's really annoying if you run a clock system. And there's some uncertainty usually around midnight as to how your system might handle the leap second.

- [Anne] Also an awful lot of room for human error.

- [David] Right, there's so much room for human error. Every time there's a leap second, there's usually some news story the next day that an airline booking system shut down for 10 hours because it didn't handle the time change, or whatever.

- [Anne] Oh.

- [David] So, there's been agitation to abolish it for many years. And last year, at a conference, it was decided that, subject to ratification this year, 2023, it will be abolished. The reason why this is big, if the time on our clocks is derived entirely from atomic clocks, nothing to do with earth's position and space, nothing to do with the movement of the stars overhead, or the sun. It'll be the first time in human recorded history that that's been the case.

- [Anne] And so, for the first time, the time we keep every day when you and I arrange to meet at this particular time, that time will not be tethered to the earth.

- [David] No, not at all.

- [Anne] Except that it's tethered to cesium atoms, which are part of the earth.

- [David] But it's not how we experience time as animals. In other words, those temporal patterns of daylight and darkness, the diurnal patterns, our body clocks, our body clocks aren't tied to cesium atoms, they're tied to those external natural cues which keep our body clocks in sync. And this is gonna be a tiny effect. We're talking about what, like a second every year or two? It doesn't matter really, does it? Especially as we're happy to move our clocks one hour away from what you might call true time every year for daylight saving. But I think there's this cultural value in keeping that connection with how we've measured time since humans first realized that lengths of shadows change, and directions of shadows change. To cut that link in the name of efficiency seems to be a bold step.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [David] Perhaps an unfortunate one.

- [Anne] It's funny, I was thinking of clocks as the things that anchor us in time. As in some ways kind of a negative, as our jailers, our overlords, task masters. But now, I'm thinking that feeling of being anchored in time is also, cuts a different way, it's also feeling of being rooted.

- [David] I agree, and I think time is complex. There are no kind of easy answers or either/or's. Time can be our jailer, but it can also be our emancipation. It can free us, as well as it can tyrannize us. But I think, I certainly think that what we've been doing over the last centuries, and then accelerating to the last decades, and with this leap second change, we're turning our back on the universe. We're turning our back on those temporal cycles, which have always meant something to us. When we were talking about those astronomical clocks in Prague or Strasbourg, or in the mosques and madrassas of the medieval world, those were very physical, big reminders of our place in the universe, and in time. And you could see them, you were forced to see them. You prayed beneath them. You walked past them in the street. We've been turning our back on that ever since. With standardization of time, and with the increasing hiddenness of clocks, the fact that those clocks in those data centers which make capitalism work, well none of us have ever seen them. Hardly know they're there, we certainly don't really care about them as a society. But look how important they are in our society. Well, this is quite new. It's quite new that these clocks which have such profound effects on our lives, not just in financial trading, but every aspect of our lives are more and more hidden to us. I guess that's one of the reasons why I wrote the book 'cause I wanted to kind of shine a light into those hidden corners a little bit.

- [Anne] It has been such a pleasure talking with you. We have only scratched the surface of what you wrote about in your book. There are so many wonderful stories and pieces of time history. So David, I hope you will join us again on another episode.

- [David] I'd be absolutely delighted, and it's been a huge pleasure talking.

- [Anne] David Rooney is the author of "About Time, a History of Civilization in 12 Clocks." He's a former curator at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and the London Science Museum, and he's served on the Council of the Antiquarian Horological Society, The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, and The Clockmaker's Museum, which is the oldest clock and watch museum in the world. In other words, he knows his clocks. And this was the first episode of "Deep Time," a new project we're launching together with our friends at the Center for Humans in Nature, and with generous support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. It's a conversation that's just beginning. An exploration of the many other kinds of time in our lives. Geological, biological, cosmic ancestral. We'll be bringing you new episodes as we produce them. You can find out more, and share your thoughts and suggestions at "To The Best of Our Knowledge" is produced by Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Mark Rickers is our digital producer. Joe Hardtke is our technical director and sound designer, with help from Sarah Hopeful. Music this week, thanks to Anemoia, Dark Slider, Nine, Noel Griffin, PC3, Spuntik, and Stellardrone. The executive producer of "To The Best of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson. I'm Ann Strainchamps, and thanks to you for listening.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
December 21, 2023