Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 538:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 538.

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 Watts wrote:

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 work.

(Theme music)

Levine, R.V., The Pace of Life. American Scientist, Vol. 78, Sep-Oct, 1990, pp. 450-459.

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. Lienhard.

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