Today, we reflect on technology and time. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
You and I agree to meet at
four-thirty. I show up at 4:33. I don't say
anything, because that's close enough to satisfy
our social contract. Only after five minutes do you
expect me to say, "Sorry I'm late."
At ten minutes I owe you an explanation: "The
freeway exit was closed. I had to go four miles out
of my way." After twenty minutes I have to make a
full and serious apology. After forty minutes I'd
better not show up at all.
That sort of thing -- so formally observed and
never explicitly stated -- drives people from other
cultures crazy. Anthropologists list the toughest
things to cope with in a foreign land. Second only
to language is the way we deal with time.
Now psychologists look at our view of time another
way. They go into several countries and measure the
pace of life. They measure the accuracy of bank
clocks and how fast city dwellers walk. They time
transactions in banks and post offices. They see
how long people take to answer questions.
Japanese keep the fastest pace. Americans are a
close second. Italians and Indonesians are at the
bottom of the list. Italians give long answers to
your questions. Indonesians don't give a fig about
setting their bank clocks.
Among American cities, Boston and Kansas City are
fastest. New York is up there, of course, but we
keep a faster pace here in Houston. California's
"laid-back" reputation is deserved. The slowest
pace of all is kept in Los Angeles.
Finally, we look at heart disease. That's tricky,
because other factors are involved. Our heart's
greatest enemy is tobacco. But heart disease also
correlates with the pace we keep. Smokers who drive
themselves are really asking for it.
Now it's 4:55. I'm strolling, unhurried, toward our
4:30 meeting. I'm thinking about something Isaac
Time, what an empty vapour 'tis;
And days how swift they are!
Swift as an Indian arrow flies,
Or like a shooting star.
That tension soaks through our view of time. Can we
see time as an empty vapor? Or do our technologies
delineate time and bind us to it? In a
technology-dense world, we too often let time turn
into an Indian arrow -- one aimed at our heart.
So the clock ticks, and we ask: Is time an arrow we
must dodge or vapor we can ignore? If we're smart,
we live by the clock only when we have to.
Otherwise, we sit back and play. We know how to let
time be only vapor, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Levine, R.V., The Pace of Life. American
Scientist, Vol. 78, Sep-Oct, 1990, pp.
The example about agreeing to meet at 4:30 is
elaborated by: Hall, E.T., The Silent
Language. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
I. Watts, The Psalms of David: Imitated in the
Language of the New Testament and Applied to the
Christian State and Worship. London: J. Clark,
1719, Hymn 58.
For more on the subjective character of time, see
Episodes 1224, 1005, and 986.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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