Abiding by Time

What is time?

Physicists would say that time woven with space is the fabric of the universe, eternal and effervescent. All our futures and all our pasts exist as one, even though we can’t experience more than a moment in time. However, all our experiences of time would be different, because all of us walk a different path in the space-time continuum.

Our perceived chiros would flow separately. Limited by our human faculties, time exists as a fluid. The sun rises, we wake up, the sun sets, and we go to bed. We fall to rituals guided by nature’s chronos, wanting just a moment more to laugh with a friend, to soak in the sun, to prepare for the day.

Before existing time-keeping devices, people perceived the passage of time through rituals. First it was the sun rising and setting, then it was the changing of seasons. Perhaps the human condition was more in tune with the sharp cold of the night and the welcoming warmth of day, the coyote howling at the full moon, or the creek freezing and thawing. Either way, our predecessors were conscious of the passage of time and relied on nature’s flow. We had a harmonic respect, and had to abide by the unyielding hand.

Horologists credit the modern method of timekeeping to the Greenwich train system, originating from Britain; however, there was a long legacy of timekeeping even before. Fascinated with ways of marking the passage of cycles, ancient civilizations looked for ways to track natural cycles to enhance their life. As a result, they created many timekeeping devices with varying levels of accuracy, including the sundial and the water clock. These devices relied on nature’s own elements to keep itself in check, and fluctuated based on natural changes.

Meanwhile, inventors also experimented with mechanical clocks. These timekeeping devices became so accurate that they became the standard. Each town had their own clock, and someone was assigned to the clock tower for maintenance. However, because noon was set to be the time where the sun was directly above head, each town’s time differed slightly. This became a problem when the railway system was introduced in England. Without a unifying time identification system, there was no way to efficiently board the passengers. As a result, Greenwich Mean Time was established.

Unifying a country with standard time zones soon spread, and evolved into a system of an international unification called the UTC. This allowed for the efficiency of industrialization, where labor economies were set by a rigid time standard with everyone entering in the factory and everyone exiting out at the same time. No longer was the pace of life set by natural rituals, and instead by the socially contractual measurements using time zones.

As focus shifted away from observing natural rituals to capitalizing on efficiency, societal values changed as well. Materialism lost much of its stigma. Timekeeping became a tool to control the present and to control nature, instead of enhancing life with the natural order. Free market capitalism flourished under this treatment, allowing for future exchanges to occur despite natural market volatility. As a result, profits continued to increase within a streamlined system, until we maxed out our seemingly limitless bounty of natural resources and human labor. The price for our hubris in re-engineering these natural systems seemed almost invisible and far away, until the consequences escalated into a time scoped within the next few generations, and the solution seemed farther and farther out of reach. Is the solution to lock away our nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years, or is it simpler to re-locate onto Mars?

What is the price of pushing the solution to our problems into a larger systematic realm? What happens when we fall out of rhythm with nature? How do we re-learn to live in sync with nature’s great design? These are some questions I hope to explore this semester in design for environments.