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A very brief history of time

2010 November 18
by Paul Vallely

No time wasters, please; To Plato, time was a metaphor, to Newton it was an absolute, toEinstein it was relative … Today, time is money (and there’s never enoughof either). Paul Vallely traces a brief history and discovers some pockets of resistance

It is no coincidence that the pyramids of Ancient Egypt spoke both of death and of time. True, they were monuments to mankind’s greatest grasp at earthly immortality – constructed by the culture that with its embalming and mummification did more than any other to stave off the ravages of death. But they were also instruments for the measurement of time, their shape and position designed for the determination of the equinox. Indeed, the two are inexorably and irreversibly linked, for the passage of time is most vividly brought home to human beings by the fact of death. “The philosophy of time bears powerfully on human emotions,” as the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it, with an unexpectedly poetic turn of phrase. “Not only do individuals regret the past, they also fear the future, not least because the alleged flow of time seems to be sweeping them toward their deaths, as swimmers are swept toward a waterfall.”

Small wonder, then, that the mastery of time is a continuing preoccupation of humankind. During the 1871 Paris Commune the Communards toured the city smashing clocks, which they regarded as symbols of the tyranny of the bourgeois oppressors who controlled their lives. Time belonged to the bosses and had to be reclaimed, even as a later generation of social reformers insisted on regaining control of their very bodies. “Hands wanted” said the signs outside the factories. “It’s hands they want, just hands, lads, and damn all else besides,” was the riposte of the socialists after the Industrial Revolution. There is something of the tyranny of time about our post-industrial paradox, in which everyone is either overworked or unemployed. Modern men and women are foiled in the search for a fulfilled life. They have either “the money but not the time” or “the time but not the money”. And all the while life is ticking away.

This is not a necessary condition. I once lived with a peasant family in a village in Ethiopia. There, people lived by rhythm rather than time. The days had their pulse, as did the seasons. Appointments would be made in terms of “tomorrow” or “the day after”. Greater precision consisted in adding “in the morning” or “after noon”.

So it was in all early societies. Scholars in Egypt and Babylon invented water clocks. Monks in the Middle Ages relied upon hour glasses from dawn to mark the passing of the canonical hours of prayer – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline – before in the 13th century designing mechanical clocks for the purpose. Medieval navigators invented the astrolabe which gave both latitude and time of day until the quadrant replaced it in the 18th century. But for the ordinary folk little changed from prehistoric times until the invention of the steam engine and the electric light turned work into an activity not bounded by the natural day.

The Industrial Revolution turned many things upside down. Until the advent of the trains and the telegraph each city had a local time taken from solar readings. In 1870 there were 80 different railroad times in the United States alone. Philadelphia time, for example, was five minutes behind New York time. In Europe, St Petersburg was 2 hours, 1 minute and 18.7 seconds ahead of Greenwich. Japan even had variable hours into the 19th century – a system common elsewhere in previous ages when day and night were allocated 12 hours each so that in summer each hour expanded to fill the available daylight and each night-time hour contracted to cram 12 into the darkness. It was not until 1883 that Standard Time was introduced – 18 November was the day of two noons because the clocks were everywhere re-set – and in 1884 the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington fixed a precise beginning of the universal day and agreed 24 worldwide time zones, with Greenwich as the meridian. Next came the precision of electric clocks, and then time measured by vibrating quartz crystals, better time-keepers than the rotating earth which, rather sloppily, varies by four or five thousandths of a second a day.

This notion rather disconcerted J B Priestley, who once wrote a fine layman’s book on the subject called Man and Time. “What and whose is this time which is better than the earth’s?” he asked, suggesting that wobbling earth time ought to be good enough for us. He has a point. For time, once a servant of sorts, has become with increasing precision a despotic overlord.

It is true that early inaccuracies were unhelpful. The mistakes grew slowly from seconds into days and even months. It takes 365 and a quarter days for the earth to go round the sun (and there is an awkward fraction in the lunar month, too, which is 29 and a half days). Our ancestors thought that an approximation would do. Which is why by 46BC the Romans found that their civil calendar was three months out of sync with the solar one. Julius Caesar solved the problem, or so he thought, by stretching 46BC so it was 445 days long.

But that computation was not accurate either; 365 and a quarter days was 11 minutes and 4 seconds too long. As a result, error accumulated in the Christian dating system (which was incidentally not invented until around 540AD by a monk called Dionysius Exiguus, who added it up wrong so that Christ was, in fact, born around 4BC). To correct it, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII, on the advice of a Jesuit, abolished the days between 5 and 15 October – a move which was in the Protestant world denounced as a Popish plot. England refused to switch until 1752 – and even then the populace protested with the cry “Give us back our 11 days”. In a further refinement Gregory declared that no century year should be a leap year unless it is exactly divisible by 400 (eg, 1600 and 2000). Gregory’s year is still 25 seconds longer than the solar year but if we further refine his system by saying that years evenly divisible by 4,000 will not be leap years, that will keep the Gregorian calendar accurate to within one day in 20,000 years, which should do us.

But the increased precision of the division of time into not just hours but minutes and even seconds has taken its toll. The wide availability of clocks and watches was blamed by one 19th-century American medical writer for a condition he dubbed the “new nervousness”.

The change of pace was reflected in the speed and tempo of the music of the period – ragtime and jazz shattered time into tatters, as Stephen Kern, author of The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918, put it. A new preoccupation with time is evident in the literature of the period. Proust reflects on the uselessness of mechanical timepieces as he searches for the stirrings of memories planted in his body long ago. Kafka’s heroes are tormented by time, feeling absurd when they arrive too early, and guilty when late; in The Trial, not knowing the time is part of the protagonist’s torture. “It’s impossible to sleep, impossible to wake, impossible to bear life, or more precisely, the successiveness of life,” Kafka wrote. “The clocks don’t agree. The inner one rushes along in a devilish or demonic – in any case inhuman – way while the outer one goes, falteringly, its accustomed pace.” And in The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad charges the character of the Russian anarchist with a mission to blow up the Greenwich Observatory – its timepieces were, evidently, then the greatest symbol of centralised political authority. What would they make of today when atomic clocks rule with a rod of caesium and computers change the world while we sleep with automatically-triggered trading in a global stock market that, in effect, never closes?

But perhaps time can here be an ally to us in combating the fragmentation and increasing amorality of modern society. Let me explain. Money, which was once a mere means of exchange, has become a commodity. Yet the interest which gives money its commodity value also undermines its role as a neutral means of exchange. The result is that the market therefore places a greater monetary value on activities that produce such interest and devalues what does not: the market doesn’t much value caring, loving, good citizenship and decency. With the economic pressures that promote individualism and atomise society many of the things traditionally done in the home or the community – childcare, help for the elderly, visiting the housebound, transport of the sick – have been contracted out to the market.

Disquiet with this is vague and unfocused but widespread. “We have an economic system that values things in a way which deep-down we don’t entirely agree with. Money has replaced trust as a way of communicating and often has a toxic effect on neighbourhoods and communities,” says Professor Edgar Cahn, who teaches the Law and Justice course at the District of Columbia law school in Washington. But more of him later.

Rebellions against the sense that money has no geographical loyalty are occurring in a low-key way the world over. Take the alternative local currencies in schemes known as LETS, local economic trading systems. They are a form of barter. Many begin as babysitting circles, but grow to schemes whereby members swap skills and services among a wide circle using their own invented units of currency – in Barnes, the currency is ponds, in Totnes acorns, in Brighton brights, in Penzance pecs, in Stirling groats and in Glasgow kelvins. The currencies are only redeemable for other services offered by LETS members.

Just 10 years after they were introduced, the UK alone now has 500 LETS involving many thousands of people who offer or require piano-teaching, plumbing, dog-walking, plant-watering, clothes-mending, curry-cooking, oven-cleaning, china repairs, chimney-sweeping, car-valeting, goats’ milk or even made-to-measure “organic coffins”.

They might sound like clubs for middle-class trendies but they are increasingly spreading into poorer areas. Local authorities such as Hounslow have appointed a council official to co-ordinate them; in Manchester one LETS with 700 members has created its own credit union; and Asian women in Leicester have started their own in which the unit is the moti, which means pearl in Hindi. The supply-and-demand dynamic can be different: work which is traditionally low-paid, such as baby-sitting, is often more generously rewarded through LETS because of demand. In Newbury it is more expensive to get your ironing done than have your taxes worked out because the scheme has few ironers but plenty of accountants.

It’s not a new idea, that you can go beyond direct barter but not as far as money. In Henry Olerich’s 1893 sci-fi novel about life on Mars, A Cityless and Countryless World, units of cash are replaced by those of time: pounds, shillings and pence become hours, minutes and seconds. But what is conventional about these systems is that they mimic market values. Some are direct: in Brixton a “brick” is set as being worth pounds 1. Others do not specify a value, but track the market’s ratio: if you want to pay for your meal at The Beacon restaurant in Kingston you can do it by washing up – but you would have to do five hours’ worth to cover the cost.

The taxman in the United States has already swooped on LETS systems – and demanded payment not in kind but in dollars. But US tax authorities have exempted one scheme which places a different value on time altogether. Time Dollars were the brainchild of the Washington law professor Edgar Cahn. He hit upon the notion as he was lying in hospital recovering from a heart attack. Here he was, he thought, being ministered to and fussed over by more people than had ever attended to him in his life. He wondered why he felt so useless.

His conclusion was stark. To feel valued you have to be active. To feel useless is such a terrible experience that no one could enjoy it, he surmised. People aren’t takers by choice, but by necessity. To create activity for those who feel left out of society is the greatest first step to helping them climb out of their disadvantage. But what can the marginalised – the elderly, the poor, the unskilled – offer? As he lay in his bed he was conscious of the slow passage of time. And then it hit him – the one thing all people had was time.

The result was Time Dollars – a system in which the needs of the community are centrally catalogued by computer and then matched with individuals who have the time to fulfil them. You put in an hour’s work when you can, and take one out when you need it. And, because the calculus is time rather than money, the distorting effect of the market system is not replicated: tasks such as caring for children, the elderly and the disadvantaged are not undervalued. The time parity would send out a message to those who at present feel left out: “We need you as much as you need us.”

The family, based partly on shared history and interests, partly on need, and partly on contribution, became his model. “Most notions of contribution are elitist. But, if we think of it in terms of contributing time, everyone can participate – even the housebound old lady who spends all day sitting looking out of the window can write down the registration numbers of suspicious cars and pass them to the police. In the States quite a few drug dealers have been nailed that way. Everyone has time.”

There is something terribly modern about the notion. Once philosophers thought time was a constant. The early thinkers were cautious. Plato spoke only in metaphor, of time being a moving image of eternity. St Augustine gave the response of a man asked to define an elephant: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.” But Newton decided time, like space, was a metaphysical absolute. Despite a bit of a wobble from Kant this became the prevailing view, underscored even by thinkers like Marx and Lenin. Everyone assumed there was an objective reality in which matter moves in space and time independently of the human mind.

But we now know that the housebound old lady’s time and that of the high- flying law professor may not be the same. There had always been philosophers who saw time as a kind of illusion. And Wittgenstein insisted that most questions about time are not real; philosophers have lost their way in language and are trying to catch the shadows cast by the opacities of speech, interpreting statements like “Don’t live in the past” as if they carried the same substance as those like “Don’t live in the Bronx”.

But with Einstein time stayed real yet became relative. There was a plurality of local times, each dependent upon the relative motion of the clock and the observer, he said. Time, for example, runs slower round a massive body like the earth. Proof of this came in 1962 when two mega-accurate clocks were mounted at the top and bottom of a water tower and it was found that the clock at the bottom, nearer the earth, ran slower.

“Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it,” writes Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Space and time are now dynamic quantities . . . space and time not only affect but are also affected by everything that happens in the universe.” Until the beginning of this century people believed in an absolute time – that all good clocks would agree on the time interval between two events. “However, the discovery that the speed of light appeared the same to every observer, no matter how he was moving, led to the theory of relativity – and that one had to abandon the idea that there was a unique absolute time. Instead each observer would have his own measure of time as recorded by a clock that he carried: clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree. Thus time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it.”

The scientist’s favourite example of this is the twins, Peter and Paul, who are separated. Peter remains on Earth while Paul is shot off in a rocket at half the velocity of light to Alpha Centauri (about four light- years away) and then immediately back at the same speed; on his return Paul will be more than two years younger than Peter. If that is true, why shouldn’t it be in more nuanced cases, like that of a small boy waiting for his mum outside the ladies’ lavatory, for whom time passes much more slowly than for his mother inside? But back to Edgar Cahn.

To overcome the disdain of the economists, Cahn took a sabbatical from the Columbia law school. As recovery therapy he came to the UK to the London School of Economics to work through his theory under the scrutiny of currency theorists. He wanted a system which, unlike LETS, was not primarily to be used for the purchase of private goods and which did not track market prices. His Time Dollars should be used for the purchase of public goods – support systems for the elderly, neighbourhood improvement schemes and so forth – and they must address the anonymity of the market, replacing stranger-to-stranger relationships with ones that built community and created a norm of good behaviour. When he published a discussion paper the economists responded: “We can see this is theoretically possible, but will it work?”

To discover, Cahn persuaded an American charitable trust, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to put up $ 3m to fund six pilot projects centred on the care of the elderly. The plan was to get old folk to shop for and visit those who were ill, and to draw on reciprocal services when they needed them. It worked, but more than that, the OAPs became Time Dollar entrepreneurs. “They said: ‘We don’t want to spend all our time with other old folk.’ And they began to use the system to do things,” says Cahn. They extended it by undertaking childcare and babysitting, with the trade- off that the children’s parents would help other old folk. It rapidly spread to other areas. When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida the federal government gave cash for materials but set up a Time Dollars programme for the repair work.

Today, 100 American cities are using Time Dollars and there are 33 organisations in Washington DC alone. Ohio has Time Dollars security patrols. Brooklyn uses them to care for the elderly with everything from telephone bingo to bereavement counselling. Miami runs nurseries for working mothers staffed almost entirely by older women Time Dollar volunteers. Fragmented communities are coming together as the system creates the framework for people to do what organic communities and extended families once did naturally.

One of Cahn’s most remarkable successes was in Chicago where he persuaded the new head of the school system to run Time Dollars schemes in five inner-city schools. “These were the worst pupils in the city – attention- deficit kids who believed they were dumb,” says Cahn. A thousand of the older pupils were asked to give private tuition to first-and second-graders (seven and eight year olds). In return, if they earned 100 Time Dollars, they got a reconditioned computer – in the US 1 million 286s go into landfill sites every year, according to Bill Gates. The result was improved educational standards, a decline in bullying and truanting, and improved discipline – not one child on the programme has been expelled. “The scheme replaced peer rejection with peer approval. It became cool to work when the six year olds said to the youngsters: ‘If I can do it and I’m dumb, so can you.’ The older kids brushed up on the basics and their work improved and 400 got computers at the end of the school year. It changed the culture of the place.”

What the system does is enable human beings for whom the market has no use to redefine themselves as contributors. In this way society shows it does value activities the market ignores or scorns. It redefines work and generates the social capital, an hour at a time, which is essential to rebuilding communities or revitalising neighbourhoods or strengthening families. It nurtures reciprocity and affirms self-worth. It shifts the emphasis from rights to powers, from entitlements based on status to entitlements based on contributions. It helps disadvantaged people find paths out of poverty. Time is Money, says the old proverb. But now, it seems, it can be something rather more

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