The Edge question this year was “What should we be worried about?” I was befuddled by that, as it implies that there may be something we shouldn’t be worried about. But I managed to write, anxiously, a short piece on a theme that comes up every so often on this blog: technology’s effect on our time sense. Here’s a bit from the beginning, slightly edited:
Human beings, like other animals, seem to have remarkably accurate internal clocks. Take away our wristwatches and our cell phones, take away all those glowing digital tickers that gaze out at us from the faces of our appliances, and we can still make pretty decent estimates about the length of passing minutes and hours. That faculty is easily warped, though. Our perception of time changes with our circumstances. “Our sense of time,” observed William James in his 1890 masterwork The Principles of Psychology, “seems subject to the law of contrast.”
In a 2009 article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the French psychologists Sylvie Droit-Volet and Sandrine Gil described what they call the paradox of time: “although humans are able to accurately estimate time as if they possess a specific mechanism that allows them to measure time,” they wrote, “their representations of time are easily distorted by the context.” Indeed, they continued, “our studies also suggest that these contextual variations of subjective time do not result from the incorrect functioning of the internal clock but, on the contrary, from the excellent ability of the internal clock to adapt to events in the environment.” Our immediate social milieu, in particular, influences the way we experience time. There’s evidence, Droit-Volet and Gill wrote, “that individuals match their time with that of others.” The “activity rhythm” of those around us alters our own perception of the passing of time.
I’m intrigued by this idea that our sense of time adapts to the “activity rhythm” of our social circumstances. The activity rhythm of an online social network seems very different from what people traditionally experienced in their lives. It’s not just that it’s a faster rhythm; it’s also a more insistent rhythm. There’s less variation — fewer slow passages — than you would have previously found in a person’s everyday experience, when conversation and other social interaction ebbed and flowed.
Of course, changes in society’s activity rhythm are nothing new. When people moved from the country to the city, they had to adapt to a new pace. Still, having that rhythm mediated so intensively by a communication technology does seem pretty different. Is there a psychological cost to this “unnatural” rhythm, this new and contagious setting for our internal clocks? For some, I expect there is. For others, maybe not.
Image from the Chris Marker film A Grin Without a Cat.