Saturday, June 07, 2014

About time

Our ancestors in the deep past didn't have clocks. Time was divided between daylight and nighttime. As a species were evolved not only without electric light, but without candles, oil lamps, or other means of illumination (with the possible exception of the campfire). People apparently tended to go to sleep soon after the sun went down and get up when the sun rose; if the night was long, they spent some time in the middle of the night awake in the dark -- cause it was hard to keep a camp fire burning all night, gathering all that wood, tending the fire, etc.

Of course, those deep ancestors had some idea of time. They knew about the path of the sun in the sky during the day and the paths of the moon and stars in the sky at night. But until quite recent historical time, the day was divided into segments that were longer in summer than in winter.

Those deep ancestors also knew about the cycles of the moon and the cycles of the seasons. With the development of agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago, farmers learned new lessons about yearly cycles. They learned about planting times and harvesting times. They learned that some times of the year they had to be getting as much done in the fields as possible and other times there was not much to be done in the fields.

When factories came along lots of people had to begin and end work at the same time. That means that people who lived in different houses and even different neighborhoods had to synchronize their schedules. A whole new approach to time.

When trains started to run, and people started to make trips that required changing trains, it became important that clocks be synchronized. When, in the early days, trains shared single tracks it was even more important that clocks be synchronized, so that the trains did not run into each other.

Navigators at sea needed accurate chronometers in order to measure longitude. If they misjudged the time, they could crash into shores or miss island ports entirely, killing themselves in the process.

Of course, today we have GPS systems and other systems that split the seconds into tiny slivers of time. Our machines are sometimes far more time conscious than our bodies and brains.

In my career I worked in more than 35 countries. One of the difficult things about such work is that time seems to mean different things to different people, according to the culture in which they live. For a Yank like myself it was hard to get used to UN meetings that would be scheduled to start at 9 am, and would actually begin at 10 or 10:30. Going to a party when my expectation was an end at 10 pm, and that of my hosts and fellow guests was 5 am or 7 am could also be hard not only to learn to expect, but to deal with when it happened. Similarly, it could be hard to deal with meetings that went on until everyone was satisfied that the discussion was complete, rather than trying to get far enough  in the scheduled time to quit with something decided; I once attended a meeting that lasted several hours ever morning, five days a week for a couple of months -- not the Yankee way of doing meetings.

There are all sorts of theories. Does a culture's attitude toward time depend on where it was formed -- at the equator with uniform day length all year long, or nearer the poles with extreme differences in day length according to season? Does it depend on whether the culture developed growing rice or growing wheat, where in the case of rice communities are more constrained to work together to get planting done? Does it depend on how recently factories and schools, not to mention trains and planes came to the society with their need for synchronization. Who knows, and maybe the time sense is specific to much smaller institutions; one man may punch a time clock at work, while his next door neighbor earns his wage at his home-office computer alone at night to his own biological clock.

Here is something else on time and culture.

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