Sunday, May 4, 2008

Read all about it

"An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity."
-- Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities," 1983

When Anderson wrote about the origins of modern nationalism, he selected the newspaper and the novel as cultural touchstones that exemplified man's ability to visualize himself as part of a unified mass of people who share a common understanding and experience of the world they inhabit. This "imagined linkage" of "print-capitalism ... made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and relate themselves to others, in profoundly news ways."

Today, of course, we need no literary devices to lend the impression of simultaneous experience; thanks to the Internet, we are instead having simultaneous experiences all over the place. We hear a 28-year-old obscure folk song in a VW commercial, Google "VW commercial song," and before you know it, Nick Drake has posthumously sold more records within a month than he had during his entire career. But strangely, this ability to connect with anything at any time has proved largely to be an isolating experience rather than one that, well, connects us. 

"Connect" is the great verb of the Internet, but for the most part, we are not connecting with other human beings or with anything that can be described as a community. We are mostly connecting with our own needs and desires, largely anonymously. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, we are mostly checking e-mail, looking up information, getting maps and driving directions, shopping, checking the weather, reading the news and gathering information about hobbies or other personal activities. We are also downloading proprietary forms of entertainment, often at no charge, something that is technically illegal but widely practiced, like drinking during Prohibition. 

Participatory activities, such as posting comments on a blog, instant-messaging, social networking and online discussions, rank low on the list, indicating that the adolescent frenzy for Facebook, MySpace and the like hasn't spread out enough through the general population to make a dent. Even when we are in ostensibly "social" online environments, however, we can (and do) avoid actual contact with other people. We can hide our online status, set ourselves as "busy," or lurk on message boards. We can be anonymous, even duplicitous, usually with no negative consequences. So much for simultaneous experiences. 

Earlier technologies, including radio and television, influenced our ideas about simultaneity just as novels and newspapers had earlier. Families gathered 'round the old wireless set or the 10-inch TV screen to share a common experience, if a silent one, that was no doubt being replicated in thousands of other homes at that same moment. We still have these experiences, of course; it was television that brought most of us the disaster of Sept. 11, 2001's World Trade Center attacks, and a generation of people will refer back to this moment the way Baby Boomers talk about Kennedy's assassination. But the experience has become dilute, its power weakened. Chuck Klosterman references this dilution in his 2005 essay, "Here's Johnny," in which he argues that Johnny Carson "was the last universally shared icon of modern popular culture." Klosterman argues that Carson's "Tonight Show" was "almost in totality, the entire construction of watching television late at night. Everybody knew this, even if they didn't own a television. It was a specific piece of knowledge that all Americans had in common."

This could never happen today, Klosterman says, and I happen to agree with him. We still have newspapers, and radio, and novels and television. But what we lack are unifying phenomena. Newspapers pump energy and resources into websites that attempt to mirror other online successes, making the paper product something of an archaic afterthought. Everything you encounter, from soda pop to car commercials to fast food, seems to have a Web tie-in, however ridiculous. 

Perhaps this is the end, then, of nationalism as Anderson described it. Perhaps without this understood unified narrative, we also lose any sense of ourselves as being in this whole experience together. However culturally insignificant "The Tonight Show" may seem, it was an experience shared more universally than anything we can imagine today.

Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.
-- Max Frisch

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saving daylight

In light (forgive the pun) of the recent switch to Daylight-Saving Time, I offer the following editorial, originally published in 2007:

This weekend, clocks across the country will "spring forward" earlier than usual, as we observe daylight-saving time in March, rather than April, in compliance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

It was 100 years ago that William Willett, credited as the father of daylight-saving time, published his pamphlet, "The Waste of Daylight," advocating that clocks be changed in spring to take advantage of summer’s late-day sunlight and readjusted in fall.

While Willett’s writing dwells largely on issues of human comfort, it does also discuss the potential energy savings that would result from such a shift _ the same savings that led to the 2005 act that has Americans changing their clocks in March.

Since its introduction in the United States in 1918, daylight-saving time has been the subject of numerous studies.

Does it save energy? How much does it save? Does it lead to more automobile accidents? More crime? Less productivity?

Those questions are still being debated _ not only in the United States, but elsewhere in the world where forms of daylight-saving time are observed.

Even the 2005 act is subject to review, including as it does a stipulation that the effect of the shift be studied by the Department of Energy to determine how much energy, if any, is being saved.

At the time the Energy Policy Act was passed, it made headlines for several reasons.

On one hand, the original bill would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which many environmental advocates oppose and others argue is key in diminishing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.

On the other hand, many critics denounced the act as being too friendly to oil companies and not doing enough to commit the United States to renewable energy sources.

With these issues in the forefront, the daylight-saving time switch understandably got short shrift, for the most part, in the media.

But the change has gained new prominence in recent weeks, drawing comparisons to the dreaded Y2K bug for its impact on technology. In 1999, the problem of updating the nation’s time-sensitive computers seemed nearly impossible.

This switch, it turns out, is no less challenging. A March 6 Chicago Tribune article dubbed it "mayhem lite" and quoted the University of California at Berkeley’s chief information officer, Shelton Waggener, observing that the switch is "more complex than the people in Washington considered."

This is no doubt not the last instance we will see of "mayhem lite," as society’s dependence on technology shows no sign of waning. It is poignant to remember, amid installing computer software patches, programming microwave clocks, synchronizing PDAs and reprogramming cell phones that the very idea of daylight-saving time was suggested first and foremost as a way to better enjoy our leisure time.

One wonders: What would Willett think of us now?

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
-- Douglas Adams

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Slow vs. Fast

This recent New York Times story illustrates how the Slow movement (i.e. Slow Food, Slow Cities and the rest) is parallelling the Futurist movement to an uncanny degree. Both originated in Italy, for starters, but even beyond that, both movements seem to originate from a sane premise that then spins off into slightly less-sane pursuits. 

100 years ago, the most avant-garde artists -- the Futurists -- were embracing many of the things the Slow movement is now setting itself against. While Futurism is most closely associated with visual art, architecture and -- unfortunately -- Fascism, the Futurists were interested in influencing all aspects of human life, beyond the aesthetic. 

Consider this 1931 Time Magazine article about Futurist food and compare it with this description of Slow Food International: "an international organization whose aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from homogenization of modern fast food and life."

Though one movement began in an effort to reform the art world and another began to support sustainable agriculture, it is easy to see the cultural legacies of both are not limited to those realms. In the present day, the Futurists' love of "speed, virility, technology and war" seem somewhat distasteful, though it is clear these ideas are still glorified in contemporary culture. In contrast, the aims of the Slow lifestyle seem so virtuous as to be almost pious -- and thus intimidating. We live in a Futurist's dream, but somehow long to escape from it, turn back the clock to a time before the labor of skilled artisans was deemed no more than "filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time" -- as long as we can take our iPhones with us. 

Meanwhile, we have seemingly embraced the Futurists' love of speed so completely that Slow advocates find it necessary to create speed bumps for the home, and baskets that will tip over if you fill them too fast. One can imagine F.T. Marinetti's reaction to such ideas (he would probably have set the basket on fire and run over the speed bump with a motorcycle). 

It's clear that, despite their flaws, the Futurists did manage to have a profound effect on society that reached far beyond the Italian art world. And it's already clear that the Slow movement has extended its reach from the kitchen, as the Times article puts it, to take over the rest of the house. But are hand-stitched garments and temporary chandeliers really enough to stem the tide of the (seeming) acceleration of contemporary life? Or did the Futurists do too good a job of seducing us with their arguments for embracing the noisy, fast, mechanized world we inherited?  

"An unhurried sense of time is in itself a form of wealth."
-- Bonnie Friedman, New York Times

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The dawn of clockwatcher

Part resting place, part sounding board, clockwatcher is my online repository for thoughts on time -- mine and others'. 

My interest in time encompasses topics such as marine chronometers, monasteries, railroads, newspapers, vaudeville, still photography, the Futurists, splitting the atom, stopwatches, the labor movement, the Industrial Revolution, the microwave oven, TiVo, cell phones, alarm clocks, efficiency experts and the Slow Food/Slow Cities movement. 

Through this blog, I hope to explore these ideas and more, and get your input along the way. 

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. 
-- Carl Sandburg