The Ending of Rigid Time

A section of the Prague astronomical clock.

A section of the Prague astronomical clock.

The history of humanity is the history of tracking and managing information. Need to grow enough wheat or rice to feed your village? Then you must track the seasons to determine the best times to plant your seeds. Want to remember society's history so you don’t continually repeat it, or determine how many of your kingdom’s subjects pay their taxes? Then you’ll need systems of writing and counting.

And central among humanity’s informational tools is the measurement of time.

Exactly how humanity began tracking time is lost in the unrecorded millennia of human prehistory. But it’s safe to assume that before recorded history began our ancestors tracked time. For example, there's ample archaeological evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers tracked the seasons. In addition, sites like Stonehenge take account of celestial time indicators such as the solstices. Our ancestors obviously knew how to track time well before recorded history began.

But as more complex civilizations developed so too developed the need for specific methods of measuring time for religious ceremonies, trade, and military and administrative duties. So at some point in our history humans began to track the individual parts of each day.

One way we did this was by measuring the passage of time using recurring natural phenomenon. The passage of the sun through the sky. The dripping of water through a small hole. The resulting devices — shadow clocks, sundials, water clocks, hourglasses — flourished for centuries. Now we track time with technologies up to and including atomic clocks, which measure the frequency with which electrons move from one energy level to another. With atomic clocks we have reached the point where we track time with far more precision than humans can notice with our physical senses.

But precision comes at a price: the chaining of a sizable portion of humanity to an extremely rigid form of time. You must be at school at this exact time. You must begin and end work at other exact times. You must never be late because that is disrespectful to our notions of time management.

Taken to the extreme this sense of absolute time management results in the dystopian world of Harlan Ellison’s classic science fiction story "‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” where everyone must obey a rigid time schedule throughout their lives or suffer the consequences.

Thanks to technology, I suspect Ellison’s time-keeping nightmare won’t come true. Instead, it’s possible we’re about to enter a period which we might well call the ending of rigid time.

But whether this will be good or bad has yet to be determined.

To understand the pending change in how humanity uses time, look in your pocket. Is a smartphone hiding there? If so you have access to systems which can chart and manage every aspect of your life — the digital equivalent of a personal assistant who ensures you never miss an appointment or your kid’s birthday.

And we’re merely at the beginning of such interconnected personal scheduling. In the near future this type of technology will no doubt evolve until some aspect of wearable or implantable tech allows your personal assistant to whisper in your ear or access your mind during every moment of your life. Spent a few minutes setting up your life preferences and you won’t need to worry about when to work or go to school or study or exercise or have a beer with friends.

In such an integrated scheduling system, why would the average human need to even pay attention to time? After all, your personal assistant will be able to connect with an entire world of other people’s lives and schedules. Tell your assistant to schedule a doctor’s visit and the assistant will contact the doctor’s office, determine when you’re available, schedule the appointment, and even tell you when to leave your home and stick out your tongue.

Instead of people being forced to track time so they can schedule their lives, their personal assistants will track time for them. In such a world people will more likely focus on living in the present than caring what the time of day might be. And time keeping itself may even be seen as antiquated. After all, your assistant will be there to worry about time, and the future, for you.

Now obviously such a world would disturb many people, including myself. But imagine how our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have felt in modern New York City or Beijing, where continually tracking the minutes and hours of each day determines whether you can keep a job and support yourself and your family. They'd have been appalled at such a life.

There might be some good in achieving a time-free future, at least for people like myself with a horrible sense of time. I often find the hours and minutes of each day slipping away from me. I’ll be focused on my writing or staring at a beautiful sunset and suddenly realize I forgot to meet my friends at the neighborhood bar.

But I also fear such a time-free world. Who knows how humans will change if we no longer have to actively track time on a personal level. Will we still plan for the future? Will people descend into an eternal hedonistic present where all that matters is moving from one scheduled moment of excitement to the next?

Even more troubling, perhaps employers will require their workers to use specially-approved scheduling inputs. In this scary version of Ellison’s "Repent, Harlequin,” your employer will be assured that your life and happiness never interfere with work-related duties because they’ll schedule your life so that never happens.

One of the things which make us human is our species’ use of tools. Our tools both define and shape who we are. And few tools are as subtly powerful as how we track and measure time.

None of these speculations mean humans will ever stop tracking and measuring time. Of course we won’t. Scientific and technological systems will always require accurate time measurement. But I suspect that on a personal level, humans will one day give up watching the clock for an even more controlling form of life scheduling.

So forget repenting for the Ticktockman. Because in such a future humans will be so intermeshed with life scheduling that time itself might appear to disappear.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.