Living on beyond-human time

Once upon a time, although really not so very long ago, our lives were at the mercy of world time. Today, we are again, an entire planet’s movements in time and space shaped almost beyond recognition by our interactions with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This essay is a brief history of time and technology seen through the innovations of clocks and electrification: a story filled with sunlight and belltowers, songbirds, fireflies, seasons and circadian rhythms, and the disorienting possibility promised by this uncanny feeling of quarantine time.

In that once upon a time, time looked and felt like something. Before the advent of electric lighting, “people moved in a day-time world and a night-time world, where light and darkness set boundaries for the things they could do.”¹ The day oriented around biological and environmental rhythms: hours of wakefulness dictated by sunlight, tides, the need to set hunting traps, the tending of crops.

Time itself ebbed and flowed, as people living further from the equator found themselves with more or less daylight depending on the season. It wasn’t that they had more or fewer hours — beginning as early as 1500 BCE, those were fixed at twelve in many known societies — rather, it was the length of the hours themselves which changed, stretching or compressing to fill the twelve divisions between sunrise and sunset. Hours of fixed length, the sixty minutes we know today, became commonplace only around the 14th century with the introduction in Europe of mechanical clocks.²

Clocktowers maintained accurate but locally specific time for centuries. Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash.

But if clocks and belltowers could keep a steadier account of the flow of time, it only lasted for as far that you could hear their ring. Every city or town maintained its own time, set by the local position of the sun. Although the concept of a 24-hour day dates back millennia, it was only as humans began to dominate space via the railways in the late 19th century that the need arose for a standardized timetable. In the US, at precisely noon on November 18th, 1883, that timetable went into effect. Businesses and stores followed the lead of Railway and Telegraph Time and its five time zones, officially adopted as Standard Time by Congress 35 years later.³ England had already nationally adopted Greenwich Mean Time by 1848; through the work of Scottish-Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, it eventually became the global standard off which all other timezones (and even occult practices like astrology) are based.

Becoming masters of time

The standardization of the hour was rapidly joined in the early 20th century by broadening access to electric light, first in US and European cities and then rural areas. By 1930, 70% of US households were electrified, replacing the more dangerous and dirtier-burning oil and gas lamps, which also had been more expensive in both time and money to maintain.⁴

With electricity, to borrow the language of sociologist Murray Melbin, the frontier of night was conquered.⁵ New opportunities arose, with new night workers (and some night wanderers), then other workers and services that could cater to their needs. For a while, the triumph of technology over nature seemed to possess only a positive side. Electrification was named the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century by the National Academy of Engineering. As physicist Matthew Luckiesh described in his 1940 book, Torch of Civilization: The Story of Man’s Consequest of Darkness:

The epic of artificial light reveals the human race born in darkness of ignorance, emerging into the twilight of knowledge, achieving some creditable independence from Nature, and eventually reproducing and even surpassing Nature’s light and lighting.

With the twin innovations of standardized time and electrification in place, we became masters of our own time, no longer beholden to factors of our environment. By the mid-20th century, the separation was complete, as the mineral quartz and later the raw element caesium replaced the sun as the standard for time-keeping. Time itself was no longer measured relative to the passage of a day — a localized connection to the earth which we share with other lifeforms — but rather on the high resonant frequencies of these materials, their very divisibility affording exacting precision.⁶

At least we’ve broadly thought and acted as though we had finally conquered time for the last century or so in the west. The reality is more complex. Electricity changed our homes and our habits, including “personal perceptions of comfort, safety, privacy, intimacy, and control” at home and in public.⁷ The disruption of our circadian rhythms, including through extrinsic factors like shift work or jet leg, is recognized in the scientific literature as contributing to the development of numerous chronic illnesses and mood disorders.⁸ Even though humans, unlike many animals, do not have a fixed mating season, studies have found evidence for a measure of seasonality in human birth rates, suggesting we are not quite so immune to the tides of our environment as we might believe.⁹

In addition, although we may have felt freed from the shackles of our environment, we were becoming increasingly fettered to a different kind of overlord, capitalistic time, in a now man-manufactured temporal landscape, but that is itself a story for another time.

The Anthropocene

As it was, the years continued to pass, then decades.

Scientists debate when exactly the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch marked by significant impact by humans on the planet, began. Consensus is emerging around the mid-twentieth century owing to the first tests of the atomic bomb and the onset of the “Great Acceleration, a recognized period of dramatically accelerating rates of change in human progress across multiple measures beginning in the 1950s. The epoch will likely be formally proposed in 2021 to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, and if approved, it would supplant the Holocene period which began 11,650 years ago (the previous epoch, the Pleistocene, began 2.5 million years ago). There are people alive on the planet today who would be able to say they straddled not merely two generations, centuries, or millennia, but two geological epochs.

The Anthropocene¹⁰ is commonly associated with climate change, but among its many other impacts is that it marks a reversal of the relationship between humans and time. From a world where humans exercised our hand still under nature’s dominion, we soon became not only masters of our own time but also increasingly that of others’, altering the circadian rhythms of other creatures who live around and among us and the seasonal cycles of the planet.

Several studies have documented that birds living near sources of artificial night lighting begin courting and breeding earlier in the spring than their counterparts in places that remain dark at night.¹¹ Marine turtles, dependent on visual brightness cues to locate the sea upon hatching, are vulnerable to disorientation from artificial light along coastlines.¹² Migrating birds, coral, frogs, fireflies, hummingbirds, penguins, salmon, and zooplankton are just a few more of the many organisms that have been found to be impacted by light pollution. Scientific analysis has documented increasing human impacts on the planet’s seasons themselves, through changes in tropospheric temperatures and distribution of rainfall among other metrics.¹³

The irony is we are affecting ourselves, in ways beyond what we intended, as well. There is substantial experimental evidence that exposure to electric light at night disrupts the circadian rhythms of our hormones, metabolism, gene expression, and other aspects of physiology.¹⁴ The importance of not just sleep, but darkness at night, to our bodies is also being recognized, even as darkness at night in cities becomes increasingly difficult to find.¹⁵

Fast forward to 2020, our societal specious present. In the past few months, as a third of the global population found itself under lockdown in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, as many remain at home and governments carefully count each day as they reopen, we are experiencing what it is to be at the mercy of yet another kind of time. This is not quite virus time, although our world has certainly become linked to the temporality of our physiological interactions with this coronavirus.

Space and time themselves have stayed interminably if invisibly linked in our lives: in quarantine, governments restricted only our movements in space, and yet the predominant sensation we were left with is that of a great pause, a slowing down of our lives. As the boundaries of our physical worlds contracted, our sense of time shifted along with it. Social media filled with jokes about not knowing what day it was, or how time seemed to either drag on eternally or vanish before our eyes. Articles interrogated what was going on with our sense of time perception.

Is this what post-anthropocene time might feel like? We have at least temporarily found our world deeply and painfully re-oriented around another entity, for many of us for the first time.¹⁶ Our lives, cities, and interactions have been radically and rapidly restructured by the presence of this virus. For those living in parts of the world that experience seasons, planetary time took on a significance it has not in over a century: we felt it in the visceral hope that spring and summer might bring some respite from contagion; we will again as fear and caution almost certainly rise in our bodies this year as fall and winter approach.¹⁷ It was only a few generations ago that the seasonal cycles of growth, harvest, coming cold, and hunger gave the phases of the year this same urgency and intensity we are feeling now.

I felt time pass differently as well in the ebb and flow and strange pacing of days under quarantine. Under the rigid constraints of Milan’s 10-week lockdown, my day reoriented for a while around sunlight (positioning myself and my plants beneath the first sparse then graciously expanding minutes of early morning light grazing my north-facing apartment); cooking and eating; the needs of the other beings I care for; even the urgency of my own emotions, to whose tending I have never intentionally granted time before. In short, two and a half months of days whose major interruptions revolved around sustaining and cultivating life, nothing more and nothing less. I knew time had passed because of the rhythms of the sun. That was real. “Tuesday April 7th” was not (at least not until I would get a calendar reminder about a Zoom meeting).

But also: livestreamed talks when I could at all hours of the planetary day about art, architecture, afrofuturism, resilience; in the evening, the local coronavirus bulletin on the news. Unlike a life centered around plants and feeling, these two are deeply entrenched in the infrastructure and materiality of the anthropocene, reliant as they are on vast networks of electricity, cables, energy, and radio frequencies. Still, at human scale, they too provided a glimpse of a future oriented around affinities, community, and social responsibility, rather than the pressure cooker culture we more regularly absorb of work, ego, competition, and the conflation of proximity with convenience or community. Broadcast for free around the planet, these events showed me what a world oriented around abundance rather than scarcity might look like. In their own way, this too is a world oriented around cultivation (here among humans) and life, with them that slower timescale of growth.

We know that some of our planet’s biggest challenges today will take thinking on a generational timescale that is unfamiliar and non-intuitive to us. Might this unexpected collapse of our perception of time be that necessary first crack in the armour? A start to thinking in seasons, years, and generations rather than billable hours?

In the 2011 work “Chronometers for Time Travelers” by Elaine Gan and Nik Hanselmann, each container displays standard clock time alongside its own unique time calculated based on changes in the material contained (water, dirt, grains, air).

I am working on another essay about the relationship between time and capitalism, and strange though it may sound I have found it difficult to tease apart a clean border between the biological and the economic. I don’t know how to fit quite what I am sensing into the frameworks of biopolitics, or the many other brilliant ways humans have conceived of to understand these things, other than to recognize that the act of reclaiming time for ourselves is itself an act of resistance to dominion and in defense of the much broader multiplicity of values underlying whatever we choose to do with that time.¹⁸ But even this isn’t what it feels like. It feels like something much softer, much more healing. Not like something political to debate but something personal and intimate and powerful to permit ourselves to embody. When I think about what I would most like to draw forward into my life from these months, it is this feeling.

I’m not alone. In mid-March I started to ask friends to share what they wanted to remember and bring forward from their pandemic experience; reflections on time and our choice of what we do with it appeared early and never went away (you can read them and submit your own reflections at quarantinethoughts.com). As I intermittently worked on this essay over the last two months, wondering of its relevance in that existential uncertainty that grows with total isolation, I watched as time became part of the cultural conversation, not just in memes but through pieces like Deb Olin Unferth’s letter “How Analog Clocks Can Give Us More By Giving Us Less,” Vox’s interview with a philosopher about our experience of time in lockdown, or the most beautiful yet of them all, the piece “The Other House: Musings on the Diné Perspective of Time” by Jake Skeets.

Here is what I think about what we’re feeling, at my most revolutionary and optimistic and most sincere. Set adrift from our calendars and our manufactured busyness, we are sensing a possibility for living that exceeds the western conception of time and the language we have built around it. The many nights of lockdown I found myself sleepless at 4am, listening enchanted to the songs of birds as the blue hour broke on an otherwise silent and shuttered city, I don’t think it was just their music I was hearing. It wasn’t just the sound of daybreak, a renewed sensory intimacy with creatures whose lives I now know have been as shaped by the city lights as mine has been. In this slowed down time, their song, the dawn’s jasmine blue breeze, could it be that I was actually hearing what Russell Jacoby calls “the sound of the secret germination of the future”?¹⁹ A future rich with the possibility to sense and commune differently: a future that can only be heard and not yet seen, precisely because it is moments like this one that will determine what it looks like.

References and notes

Thank you for the gift of your time! You can find more of my reflections on time, perception, and ecology in the essay, “We are all time travellers now” or follow me to be the first to read upcoming pieces.

[1] Garnert, Jan. Anden i Lampan. Etnologiska Perspektiv Pa Ljus Och Morker (The Genie of the Lamp: Ethnological Perspectives on Light and Darkness). 1993: 277. As quoted in Moezzi, Mithra. “Social Meanings of Electric Light: A Different History of the United States.” Proceedings from the 1996 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, ACEEE Press, 1996, 8.123–8.132: 8.127.

[2] “Why is a minute divided into 60 seconds, an hour into 60 minutes, yet there are only 24 hours in a day?” (Scientific American)

[3] The article “Time Standardization” from Linda Hall Library presents a fun and particularly detailed history.

[4] Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1975). As cited for example in “Bias in electric power systems” by Julie Cohn.

[5] Melbin, Murry. Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark. 1987.

[6] “Caesium: A brief history of time-keeping” (BBC News)

[7] Moezzi, Mithra. “Social Meanings of Electric Light: A Different History of the United States.” Proceedings from the 1996 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, ACEEE Press, 1996, 8.123–8.132: 8.124.

[8] One such review of the literature is Glazer Baron, Kelly, and Kathryn J Reid. “Circadian Misalignment and Health.” Int Rev Psychiatry. 2014 April; 26(2): 139–154. doi:10.3109/09540261.2014.911149.

[9] See for example, “Seasons Sway Birth Rates” (New York Times)

[10] Although the Anthropocene is the term most generally accepted across humanists and scientists, and the only one under consideration as a name for the present geological epoch, it is not the only one proposed to describe our current condition; in fact, personally I am most compelled by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing’s concept of the Plantationocene.

[11] For example, Marzluff JM. 2001. “Worldwide urbanization and its effects on birds.” In Avian ecology and conservation in an urbanizing world (eds JM Marzluff, R Bowman, R Donne); Da Silva A, Valcu M, Kempenaers B. 2015. “Light pollution alters the phenology of dawn and dusk singing in common European songbirds.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370: 20140126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2014.0126.

[12] Tuxbury, Susan M. and Michael Salmon. 2005. “Competitive interactions between artificial lighting and natural cues during seafinding by hatchling marine turtles.” Biol. Conserv. 121, 311–316. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2004.04.022.

[13] For example, on tropospheric temperature, Santer, Ben, et al. 2018. “Human influence on the seasonal cycle of tropospheric temperature.” Science 361. doi: 10.1126/science.aas8806; on rainfall, Putnam, Aaron and Wallace Broecker. 2017. “Human-induced changes in the distribution of rainfall.” Science Advances. 3. 10.1126/sciadv.1600871.

[14] Stevens, RG and Y. Zhu. “Electric light, particularly at night, disrupts human circadian rhythmicity: is that a problem?” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2015; 370: 20140120. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2014.0120.

[15] Ellen R. Stothard, et al. “Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend.” Current Biology, Volume 27, Issue 4, 20 February 2017: 508–513.

[16] But not everyone and not universally: consider polio, HIV, SARS, Ebola…

[17] Such sentiments operate from intuition and from drawing parallels with the behaviour of some other viruses, in the absence of any certainty about this one. Even today we do not entirely understand the reasons for the seasonal nature of the common flu.

[18] Sure, I’m behind the curve here. People who are good at “work-life balance” somehow figured out how to do this without a global pandemic. I don’t think that is most of us. It certainly isn’t me or the majority of working millennials.

[19] “Secret germination of the future” is from Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005), which also traces iconoclastic utopias to traditional Jewish thought as futures which can be “heard but not envisioned.”

is an artist & educator whose work in creative technology explores sensory perception, time, and encounter. Immersive Denver co-founder; formerly @ CU Inworks.