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The Spectrum and Distribution of Time

Humans can only physically perceive a tiny part of the known electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum in its entirety is about 10 trillion times larger than that of visible light. Might the spectrum of time be equally as vast, and equally as limited by our current natural and technological perception?

Time, as we know it, is universal / standardised / and absolute. When we consider time we tend not to consider it on a variable spectrum, instead we consider what we know of time; the universal clock face representing one of 24 local times all of which are relative to Greenwich Mean Time.

We have captured time and enslaved it into a tiny spectrum of its potential and probable dimensions.

Shepherd Gate Slave Clock / Diagram of master electric time system used around 1910.

The Shepherd Gate Clock, still mounted on the wall outside the gates of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (above left), is an early example of a ‘slave clock’. A slave clock is a clock that depends on another master clock for its accuracy through a physical electronic network (above right). The master and slave clock system was used in the early 1900's to keep time in factories, schools, and other large institutions. Although this technology has long since been superseded its ideology remains dominant as our governing perception of time.

All known clocks in the world are manually or automatically synchronised to a single keeper of time, that keeper of time is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), otherwise known as Universal Time Coordinated (UTC). Where as light is perceived as a limited spectrum, time is perceived as a singular absolute. This is a bit weird.

WEIRD Time / Weird Time

Before the emergence of the global village, the planet was a galaxy of isolate human cultures, which might have fostered mental states that are now extinct.

— Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus

In his second book Homo Deus Yuval Noah Harari introduces a WEIRD concept. Observing that the majority of scientific research about the human mind and human experience has been specifically concluded based upon research / peer review on individuals from Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies we should acknowledge that what we seemingly know of ourselves is not based upon a representative sample of humanity. We often fail to appreciate that the total human mental state is far broader than just our own, and further still that the entire spectrum of possible mental states might be far larger than humans can currently perceive with our own limited faculties. Those mental states of time are entirely likely to be weird rather than WEIRD.

In a previous post on temporal considerations I concluded ‘We still have vast unknown temporal frontiers ahead of us, waiting to be explored and experienced’. So what might this mean beyond the remit of science fiction?

I was recently introduced to the work of philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre on Rhythmanalysis (a method for analysing human rhythms). Using Lefebvre’s model as a methodology I began to plot a loose series of rhythms that a modern human experiences over the course of a day, a season and a lifetime. Then I looked to identify which of these rhythms is facilitated by a clock or watch (circled and highlighted in blue below), which by calendars, and which lay outside of any formal time management system.

Rhythmanalysis of a modern WEIRD human, Ted Hunt, 2018

Here we can now clearly see the extent of the standard clocks distinct bias towards rhythms conductive to WEIRD societies and norms (scheduling, social routines, work, time management, contemporary homeostasis). There exist multiple other attributes of our experience of time that have no language or means of access, and as such no means of consideration or navigation.

Beyond broadening our own perception of time we might also look to how animals perceive and experience time in ways we can not document, let alone imagine. Take for example sleep as a universal experience of time (all living creatures sleep). Our own experience of sleep is largely diurnal and monophasic, we tend to sleep once a day and during the hours of darkness. Animals such as cats and dogs are proponents of polyphasic sleep, catching multiple pockets of sleep as and when they can. Other creatures such as rabbits are biphasic, sleeping through most of the day and night and becoming active only during dawn and dusk. Then there are unihemispheric marine mammals who alternate sleep between one brain hemisphere to the other. Durations of sleep also vary wildly in the wild, from the American Opossum at 18 hours to Giraffe at just four hours and Mexican Cave fish at merely two hours.

Network Topology: Decentralised / Centralised / Distributed

One means of considering an expanded perception of time might be to view time as a system. When considered in this light there is a strong case to place the ruling perception of Standard Time as a centralised system. A single central point of governance rules over all connected entities in this system, Greenwich Mean Time is the central point of governance in our system of time.

Centralisation is not the only means of system organisation, however. (as Prior to the introduction of time zones in the late 19th century time was observed through the Decentralised model of Local Mean Time. And now Distributed systems are increasingly finding favour outside of command and control structures (currently driven by the hype and mystery associated with Cryptocurrencies).

Considering time as a distributed system might progressively free time from the confines of standardisation; by decolonising time, by de-WEIRDing time, and by de-anthropomorphising time. Jointly it might, like other distributed systems and networks, increase times resilience and adaptivity to change (as a core component of time) through diversity.

All of this, in some way, might form part of the forthcoming task of making sense of the project Sense of Time. For it is in making a new sense of time that our future sense of time will lay.

Sense of Time as a distributed spectrum, Ted Hunt. 2018

The above text represents ‘thought in progress’ associated with the project sense of time, a new collaboration between King’s College London’s Department of Philosophy and artist Ted Hunt, brokered and supported by the Cultural Institute at King’s in partnership with Somerset House Studios.

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