By Arnab Chakravarty
Illustrated by Nuntinee Tansrisakul
The narrative of time that we choose to believe not only has profound implications on our own selves, but on the planet where we live. Can we thrive as a species if we are able to shift our view of the present as a short but incredibly significant instance along an almost unimaginably long cosmic span?
What is the key that turns night into day? Poetry…– Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”
Every day at 12:55, a bright red ball rises half way up the mast on top of Flamsteed House, a building that sits on the lush green grounds of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. At 12:58, it makes it way to the top. And at exactly 13:00, it starts to fall, signaling the time to anyone who might be looking. While the experience of watching it drop is pretty underwhelming, it’s reverberation is felt across the lives of most human beings on the planet. The clocks and other time-keeping devices that universally govern how we live out our existence synchronize to the Greenwich meridian and the whole world hums along. The language of hours, minutes and seconds has become so familiar across geographies and cultures that most of us can’t conceive another picture of time. Its presence is taken for granted, and we march to its rhythms configuring our relationship with our own bodies, other humans and the environment.
Around 1900, at the height of the European colonialist expansion, there was a practical need to establish a lingua franca for time to enable global commerce, transport and communications. The world needed to march to the beat of a single drum and from that beat was born the notion of Greenwich Mean Time, first proposed at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1880. While it was later absorbed under the Coordinated Universal Time Standard, the GMT project’s aim to enmesh the globe within a grid of hours, minutes and seconds is one of the most enduring legacies of colonization in our modern world. However, the path to this standardization wasn’t merely a series of global events and treaties, but it also entailed decimation of local Indigenous cultures of time in colonized lands across the world.
European territorial expansion was propelled by the spread of clocks and calendars but also put forth the belief that non-European societies were not attentive to the passage of time(1), detailed in the book The Colonization of Time by Giordano Nanni. By imagining itself as a time-conscious civilization, colonizing cultures legitimized the actions of settlers, missionaries and officials who interrupted indigenous calendars and local notions of time and productivity under the pretext of ‘civilizing’. Nanni further details how European missionaries and settlers systemically imposed ‘time discipline’ on the Aborigines of Victoria and the various African tribes of South America through the use of symbols, artifacts and ideas(2)(3). This act of temporal violence was repeated across geographies and cultures: the flux of seasons, the ebb and flow of local ecosystems, the dance of heavenly bodies across the sky apart from the sun. The cyclical nature of continuity of time in indigenous cosmologies had no place in this new world vision and these notions were systematically denigrated and erased. Time-reformers were successful in enforcing a man-made abstraction of time which was completely divorced from the rhythms and cycles of nature. Clock-time, singular amongst the countless vernacular expressions of the concept of time, became the dominant standard and with it, we ignored the fact that 365 days, 24 hours, and 60 seconds is only one way to measure the passage of time(4).
However, this system wasn’t imposed without opposition. People around the world objected to the European meddling with traditional rhythms of everyday lives that were already in harmony with their local conditions. The history of colonization is rife with stories of smashed church bells and desecrated sabbaths(5). In her book The Global Transformation of Time, Vanessa Ogle recounts the stories of the revolt by mill workers in Bombay against the imposition of Indian Standard Time(6), the stubborn refusal of Ottoman Beirut to give up old ways of timekeeping in favor of the new, and their endeavor to create the Rumi calendar, a modified version of the Julian calendar, to work alongside their lunar-based Hijri calendar (7).
The protests were not staged only by non-Europeans. Many Europeans also needed convincing. The French adopted a nationwide mean time but refused to align with the Greenwich Meridian, as that would involve suffering the indignity of setting up French time in deference to an English observatory. In England, agriculture workers, domestic servants, and cowmen organized collectively to protest against ‘The Summer Time Act” from its start in 1907 to 1925, where it was made permanent(8). Worker unions were uneasy that adopting summertime hours would weaken laws that regulated working-hours and reports of abuses of summertime by firms surfaced after its adoption(9). While these revolts eventually succumbed to the relentless march of time standardization, it serves as a reminder that the time standard we take for granted and think of as ‘natural’ was anything but.
“Time is nothing but the form of the inner sense, that is, of the intuition of ourselves and our inner state” wrote Immanuel Kant in his book, Critique of Pure Reason. And by universally choosing to base the representation of time on a mathematical abstraction that changes according to uniformly spaced lines across the face of the earth, we have divorced ourselves from developing an understanding of our internal time(10).
In the book Internal Time, chrono-biologist Till Roenneberg introduces the concept of ‘social jetlag,’ the consequences of forcing our bodies to choose between the social time dictated by work and society or internal time, what we think of as our biological internal clock(11). With the adoption of the universal time standards and time-zones that expect us to work in timed shifts and only be productive between fixed hours, the chrono-typical outliers are temporally displaced from social time. And that plays havoc with our sleep cycles. The late chronotypes accumulate the most sleep debt, which places us at considerable risk of having to deal with the effects of chronic sleep-deprivation(12).
Internal time is a biological feature where a special bundle of cells in mammalian brains regulate cyclical biological processes. Sleep, menstrual cycles, REM sleep, pulse, bowel activity, appetite and arousal are all examples of cyclical biological processes that occur in our bodies. And in mammals, one of the most important and well-studied cycles is the circadian cycle: a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours and is controlled by the SCN, a tiny bundle of 20,000 neurons in the hypothalamus.
In humans with a functioning SCN, each of them will have a unique chronotype. A person’s chronotype is the propensity for the individual to sleep at a particular time during a 24-hour period which has a direct impact on hormone levels, metabolic function, body temperature, cognitive faculties among other things. The sleep cycle is one of the most prominent expressions of an internal body clock in humans and sleep patterns are governed by two factors: sleep duration and timing. This internal clock is genetically determined and cannot be changed, contrary to popular assumption. Sleep patterns follow a bell curve and a vast majority of us fall in the middle(13).
Another interesting fact about the internal clock genes is that they are regulated and ‘entrained’ by the daily light-dark cycle, which is determined by the Earth’s rotation. But increasingly, urban dwellers spend most of their time indoors awash with artificial light whose intensity cannot hold a candle to the sun. The contrast between day and night is much smaller as compared to our pre-industrial ancestors. This throws our internal clocks out of synchrony (14). Additionally, before the emergence of artificial lighting, people slept in two large segmented phases. In the first segment, people went to bed two hours after sunset and woke up four hours later. Then, they spent a couple of hours doing things which ranged from smoking, visiting neighbors, storytelling, praying, and having sex. In the second phase, they slept for four hours more. Roger Eckrich, in his book, At Days Close: Night in Times Past, cites more than 500 documents that have references to segmented sleep. While it is not as prevalent as in our current culture, the biphasic sleep patterns were prevalent across cultures all over the world(15).
This trifecta of an uncaring, fixed social time schedule, lack of sufficient exposure to natural light and a fixed sleep time structure creates chronic sleep deprivation in millions around the world. And that has all sorts of disastrous effects. W.H.O. recently classified shift-work that disrupts circadian rhythms as a carcinogen(16). Studies have shown that one hour of social jet lag increases the chance of cardio-vascular diseases by 11% and was associated with worse mood and greater levels of fatigue(17). Another study shows that adults with higher levels of social jetlag are likely to be obese and are more susceptible to diabetes(18). The odds of a person being a smoker rises significantly with every hour of accumulated social jetlag(19).
Throughout history, governments, cults and individuals have used sleep deprivation to bend people to do their will; the 909 people who committed mass suicide at Jonestown(20), the members of the cult movement Shinrikyo who attacked an unsuspecting Japanese subway with sarin nerve gas attack during rush-hour (21), the prisoners of Abu Ghraib, and the thousands who sign false confessions under sleep-deprivation every day(22) illustrate the effectiveness and potency of sleep deprivation. And yet, we, collectively as a culture, subject millions to it, in the name of uniformity and standardization.
While millions of people are individually grappling with the consequences of time standardization, there is a bigger global consequence of divorcing our notion of time from the rhythms of nature. Throughout the history of humanity, we didn’t feel the need to think for the long-term, on an individual basis. Daniel Gibert, a psychologist at Harvard University, explains that for mankind, there was no evolutionary advantage in recognizing the subtle shifts in long-term processes and multi-generational changes in the face of constant, visceral threats. Gilbert writes, “Our brains are programmed to barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. ”
The mechanization of time toward the enables this natural inclination toward responding to immediate threat, and the slow, subtle changes that might eventually lead to catastrophe slip below the brain’s radar leading us to ignore them; the world we live in today is beset by threats happening on the time-scale of decades or centuries. But the ‘now’ demands ever more attention and overwhelms us. As Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Catalog, writes, “The sociologist Elise Boulding diagnoses the problems of our times as ‘temporal exhaustion’. If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”(23) There is a growing convergence on the idea that short-termism is one of the greatest existential threats to humanity. Most of us can barely think of next year and our institutions run on short-term cycles of quarterly business results and 4-5 year terms in democracies. Ironically, the time system which helped spread colonization across the planet has effectively colonized our collective future.
To change this collective future, we need to change our relationship with time. In her book, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Save the World, Marcia Bjornerud, a geologist, presents the idea that we need a new way to think of our place in time in order to make multigenerational timescales. She argues that our sense of temporal perception is out of whack and cultivating feelings of long distances and deep time can enable us to build a more time-literate society which makes more sustainable decisions. However, this change is not going to be easy. As the history of time standardization has shown us, new ideas that seem ‘natural’ are rarely achieved without being met with resistance and inertia. We will need to reauthor some of the base societal narratives of our personal and collective association with time and our place in the ‘natural’ order of things, and using the arts to foster that will be essential.
There is a rapidly growing body of imaginative work considering these new connections and narratives. The Institute of The Long Now began pioneering a longer perspective to our future two decades ago. Through projects such as the 10,000 Year Clock, which stretches the measure of time to the decamillenia, and the introduction of the five-digit year (we are in year 02019 at the time of publication), the institution aims to move civilization toward longer-term thinking. The Long-Player Project by Jem Filner is a one thousand year-long musical composition for Tibetan bowls that began on 1 Jan 2000 and ends without repetition until 2099. Stereochron Island by Cathy Haynes imagines a place outside ordinary time and without clocks, where the only guide to time is to rely on natural rhythms. Future Library by Kathy Paterson is a forest in Norway which will supply paper for books which will be printed in 100 years’ time. Margaret Atwood was the first author to submit a book that won’t be read for another 100 years. The Wu-tang clan recorded an album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” that won’t be available for distribution until 2103. And, finally, the 2018 mega-hit “Black Panther” drew upon futurist works of writers like Octavia Butler to present a view of the future that was environmentally friendly, technologically advanced, plural and decolonized.
There are other artists in this genre, working to create visceral, embodied experiences to experience the ideas of future and the interconnected nature of our lives on the planet. Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch, is a project in which he transported melting glacial ice to London and presented it across two locations in London in an effort to materialize the media-abstracted concept of real-time climate collapse. Treehugger: Wawona, by Marshmallow Laser Feast, allows us to take a journey inside the giant sequoias of California and experience their towering majesty. Waterlicht by Studio Roosegarde creates an eerie blue virtual flood using LEDs and lenses to visually demonstrate the water levels predicted form climate change. Crystelle Vu and Julian Oliver’s The Extinction Gong which memorializes the accelerating loss of planetary life, by ringing mournfully every 19 minutes, which is estimated to also be the rate of planetary species extinction.
Our sense of time has everything to do with how we relate to our own selves within our own concentric circles of reality. And that narrative of time that we choose to believe not only has profound implications on our own selves, but on the planet where we live. It can feel like the world we have instinctively known, is the only option. And yet, there is a multiplicity of future scenarios for reconfiguring our relationship with our bodies and the planet that can be found in the vernacular, indigenous cosmologies that we worked so hard to systemically denigrate and erase.
What if we were willing to apply the Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime to our collective experience, and started to see time as not in a linear pattern, but in a cyclical ‘circular’ one? And what if we ditched time standardization and reframed society to work around chrono-type diversity? What impact would the ability to understand our own internal rhythms have on our collective well-being? Can we thrive as a species if we are able to shift our view of the present as short but incredibly significant instance along an almost unimaginably long cosmic span? There are no simple answers to any of these questions, but by changing the narrative of our relationship with time, we can be given the chance to be good ancestors.
1. Nanni, G. (2006). Chapter 5. The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in The 19th Century Cape Colony and Victoria. Manchester University Press.
2. Nanni, G. (2006). Chapter 6.. The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in The 19th Century Cape Colony and Victoria. Manchester University Press.
3. Nanni, G. (2006). The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in The 19th Century Cape Colony and Victoria. Manchester University Press, p. 3.
4. Nanni, G. (2006). The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in The 19th Century Cape Colony and Victoria. Manchester University Press, p. 1.
5. Nanni, G. (2006). The Colonization of Time: Ritual, Routine and Resistance in the 19th Century Cape Colony and Victoria. Manchester University Press, p. 20.
6. Ogle, V. (2015). Chapter 4. The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
7. Ogle, V. (2015). Chapter 6. The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
8. Ogle, V. (2015). The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 59.
9. Ogle, V. (2015). The gGobal Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 61.
10. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 1.
11. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 149-151.
12. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 151.
13. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 22.
14. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 92.
15. A. Roger Ekirch, Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies, Sleep, Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 715–716, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.5558
16. IARC Monographs evaluation of the carcinogenicity of night shift work. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iarc.fr/news-events/iarc-monographs-evaluation-of-the-carcinogenicity-of-night-shift-work/.
17. S Forbush, E Fisseha, R Gallagher, L Hale, S Malone, F Patterson, C Branas, M Barrett, WD Killgore, J Gehrels, P Alfonso-Miller, MA Grandner, 1067 Sociodemographics, poor overall health, cardiovascular disease, depression, fatigue, and daytime sleepiness associated with social jetlag independent of sleep duration and insomnia, Sleep, Volume 40, Issue suppl_1, 28 April 2017:A396–A397.
18. Parsons MJ, Moffitt TE, Gregory AM, et al. Social Jetlag, Obesity and Metabolic Disorder: Investigation In a Cohort Study. Int J Obes (Lond). 2015;39(5):842–848.
19. Roenneberg, T. (2012). Internal Time: Chronotypes, Cocial Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 150-151.
20. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, San Diego State University. https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29478
21. Metraux, Daniel A. Religious Terrorism in Japan: The Fatal Appeal of Aum Shinrikyo. Asian Survey, vol. 35, no. 12, 1995, pp. 1140–1154. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2645835.
22. Frenda, Steven J., Berkowitz, Shari R., Loftus, Elizabeth F. and Fenn, Kimberly M. (2015) Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 23 February 2016
23. Olson, Robert (2004) Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow: Shaping The Next Industrial Revolution, Island Press