Going to Extreme Measures

Times Staff Writer

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Once measured by the arc of the sun through the sky, by the changing of the seasons, life these days is measured by an increasingly complex and exacting system of timers.

There it is, on the Caltrans signs dotting Southland freeways: “25 min to downtown LA.” Walk signals count down until the light changes. In the digital sphere, time is sectioned into a series of laptop and cellphone battery meters and iPod song timers.


Radio stations alert listeners to time intervals, a la “more Howard Stern in two minutes” or “30 minutes of uninterrupted music.” Al Gore’s new network, Current TV, displays a progress bar at the bottom of the screen indicating the amount of time left in each segment.

On hold with the credit card company? The automated system informs you of your “estimated wait time.” Soon you’ll be able to track the specific moment of arrival of buses, trains and ferries, on your cellphone, via satellite.

Time takes on a prescient flavor; it orients the present moment and also reaches out into the future, taking hold of what will be.

The trend will balloon in coming years, experts say.

“It seems kind of obsessive,” says Thomas Goetz, deputy editor of Wired magazine. “There has long been a niche of people who want to know how many seconds a song is going to last or how long a file will take to download. But it’s interesting now that it’s kind of being catapulted into the public sphere, that our governments, even, are now heeding the same kind of restlessness.”

Proponents say the development inserts a modicum of sanity into a frazzled society. But critics claim that our focus on time as a commodity is the source of our frenzy rather than its salve, and that it leads to a kind of “time famine” and to all sorts of stress-related maladies.

“This is a public health problem of extraordinary dimensions, similar to smoke in public places,” says Peter C. Whybrow, director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and author of the book “American Mania: When More Is Not Enough.” “We’ve become the victims of our own technology.”


We have an “old brain” inherited over many millenniums, Whybrow says, a brain that is conditioned to “measure time through the seasonal variation and the rituals that were tied to that, to the day-night cycle, all tied to the sun.” By binding ourselves to a concept of time not anchored in nature, “we’re perturbing the insides of our heads in a way that’s quite disturbing and distressing.”

The concept of “time famine” is increasingly entering into public and academic discourse. Seattle-based Take Back Your Time, an education and public policy nonprofit, aims to “challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and our relationships, our communities and our environment.”

Timing devices aren’t by definition a bad thing, says Take Back Your Time President John de Graaf, author of “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.” The problem is the extent to which we use them to schedule ourselves into a frenzy. “People are feeling increasingly like they’ve got to find a way to save every second,” De Graaf says. “It used to be that when asked, ‘How are you?’ People would say, ‘Fine.’ Now they just say, ‘Busy.’ ”

The result, says De Graaf, is a society that prides itself on massive productivity and a luxurious standard of living without realizing our devil’s bargain. “If you want to judge standard of living on who has the most toys or stuff, then we win. But if you look at health, mental illness, strength of families, divorce, general equality or levels of education, we aren’t No. 1. We pay a huge price for the phenomenal amount of overwork we do.”

Huge price or no, some busy people say that an accelerated pace of life is a foregone conclusion, that we might as well harness timing technology to help us navigate.

“This is just my reality,” says Samantha Slaven, a fashion publicist in Los Angeles. “I’m in a fast-paced business; I run my own company; I work in 15-minute increments all day long. I get impatient, and these devices just help you manage your expectations. My favorite is crossing the street in San Francisco, the signs that tell you how many seconds you have left until the light turns red. I’m so busy that the thrill of mystery just throws me off. I would like to know, for instance, approximately when my dog is going to have to go to the bathroom.”

Love the timed life or hate it, both sides agree: Timing ourselves is addictive. “The progress bar has become like the crack of Current TV,” says David Neuman, the network’s president of programming. “It’s the single most complimented thing on the whole network. There’s a suspense to watching that progress bar move. It’s like those freeway signs; in a universe that’s characterized by so much chaos and disorder, maybe these little things give us a sense of psychological control.”

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Controversy about time is as old as time-keeping itself, and a new furor seems to arise whenever time moves further from its natural moorings. Once time was simply the cycle of the sun and moon through the sky, the passage of seasons, the cropping up of wrinkles on skin. Then humans invented ways to quantify the pace of change, such as sundials and almanacs derived from natural cycles.

Even the earliest mechanical clocks were set according to the sun. But in the U.S. in the early 1800s, time began to move in fits and starts toward the disembodied breed we know today. And controversy bubbled forth.

Take this tale of two clocks in New Haven, Conn., in 1826, recounted by Michael O’Malley in “Keeping Watch: A History of American Time.”

The town’s dual timepieces were constantly out of sync. One was the Yale College clock; the other, a clock at the town hall. They would display the same time one moment and then fall out of sync with each other, forever engaged in a game of tag that left the townspeople befuddled and choosing sides.

The Yale clock kept “apparent time” -- according to the sun’s arc, like a sundial -- whereas the town hall clock offered “mean time,” an averaging out of the sun’s daily variation. A lively debate sprang up in the Connecticut Journal, the local newspaper, over which clock was right. “It is said that the clock gives mean time. But what is mean time?” wrote one reader in a letter to the editor. “Mean time is not true time, nor is true time mean time. A public clock, which tells the truth four times in a year, is something very much like a public nuisance.”

An anonymous reader disagreed, noting that the vast majority of watches and clocks tell mean time, so “surely the public at large ought not to have all their operations deranged, or their timepieces injured, by attempts to follow the variations of apparent time.”

The Journal doesn’t indicate how this issue was resolved locally, but we know from the thrust of history that mean time roundly trumped apparent time.

And time-keeping continued to evolve. In 1883, standard time was introduced by the railroads, breaking up the country into zones. In 1918, daylight saving was imposed, largely to conserve fuel during World War I -- but was repealed a year later. The people who most objected to daylight saving time, O’Malley notes, were those who lived at the boundaries of time zones, where daylight saving spelled an even greater distance between nature and the clock. (Daylight saving was governed by local jurisdictions until Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966, which standardized daylight saving times.)

While factory hours and train schedules had once been adjusted to fit the light/dark pattern of each season, with daylight saving, time itself became adjustable.

Slowly, a new conception of time as synonymous with the machine integrated itself into the American psyche. Early science-fiction movies halt time by showing a clock with frozen hands, indicating that when the physical clock stops, time stops, while the rest of nature and humanity continue unabated. Time is no longer that mysterious passageway we enter at birth and exit at death; it is a commodity, external to us, that we can control.

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Displaying traffic information on electronic signs along Southern California freeways was a no-brainer, says California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio. A network of about 15,000 censors was already in place along urban highways, so all it took was some rejiggering of wires and circuits, and in early August, commuting here became significantly less ambiguous.

Each of 14 signs displays the amount of time it will take to reach up to two destinations. Caltrans has plans to expand the program.

“We feel that it’s putting traveler information in the hands of the motorist,” Bonfilio says. “It will make the freeway systems more efficient.”

But as with the two clocks in New Haven, not everybody has embraced the new model. By late October, nearly 300 motorists had evaluated the signs via the Caltrans website: 42% were either “very or somewhat satisfied” -- and 52% were “somewhat or very dissatisfied.”

“I was headed to work and was able to estimate that I would be a little late,” wrote one person. “I called ahead and informed my co-workers, since we had a meeting that morning. It’s nice to have the information right on the spot!”

Others disagreed. “Estimated time does not help because I am already on the road,” and “What’s the difference between 25 or 45 minutes? Are there any alternatives once you are at that point?” and “Too much information!”

The Caltrans signs and other time-keeping devices are only the most rudimentary of an expanding array of products designed to impose data on the physical world, a snowballing trend that technologists call “augmented reality.”

Just like TiVo enables us to time-shift the way we view television, augmented reality devices change the way we interact with physical space. “We get these moments in real life, walking down the sidewalk, going to a movie, where you can actually pull out select data information that otherwise in an analog world wouldn’t be available to you,” said Goetz of Wired magazine. “You might have a [global positioning system] built into your pair of glasses, say, so it looks like you’re just looking through glasses but you’re actually getting a data feed. And there will be different levels of filtering that you can select.”

Augmented reality “is going to happen hugely,” says Saul Griffith, a partner at Squid Labs in Emeryville, Calif. “Especially now that a lot of electronic devices are going mobile, information can follow you around.”

Squid Labs is at work on a portable computer screen with a digital video camera on the reverse side. Hold it up to the world and it looks like a transparent pane of glass. But click on certain objects and view digital information transposed onto the world: the architectural plans of a standing building, say, or pipelines underneath the street. Solid surfaces become permeable; rules of physics no longer apply.

As time-keeping meshes with gadgetry that blurs the boundary between the digital and physical worlds, people stand at the edge of a “techno-utopian nightmare,” says UCLA professor Whybrow. “Most people don’t look at what the world is about anymore. How many people -- even the people who go to the beach -- watch the sunset? The things that make us happy are actually tied to the types of behaviors that we’ve had for millions of years. Having all sorts of information doesn’t make us any happier.”

“About 33% of the population say they feel anxious most of the time,” Whybrow says. “This is driven by the fact that we’ve leapt the barriers of time and space. Light and dark don’t mean anything anymore.”

Squid Lab’s Griffith contends that the difference between people who embrace augmented reality and those who abhor it is mostly generational. “Let’s just say that for anyone under the age of 30, this isn’t even a question to them. When I have children, they won’t think it’s a problem, and I’ll be a grumpy old man saying I can’t deal with it.”

But what of those moments of utter boredom, sitting around on a sluggish Sunday afternoon, when there are no stimuli except an air conditioner’s whir or some distant drip-drip-drip -- and you actually forget about time? Creativity experts suggest that the timelessness of boredom is the font from which inspiration emerges, and various spiritual traditions seek to invoke just this timeless sense of being.

“You like to have some moments where you can just take a breath,” Goetz said. “But those kind of dead zones are being chipped away at, which makes me sad.”

On a practical level, however, even the folks most concerned about an overly timed life find that, short of dropping off the grid entirely, escape is a difficult thing. O’Malley, who wrote the book on the history of time, remembers a moment in high school: “I had finished an assignment, and I was sitting there for the bell to ring. I was watching the clock, and couldn’t go anywhere, and I started thinking: What gives the clock its authority?”

Since then, O’Malley has tried many strategies to extricate himself from time’s grasp. “I didn’t wear a watch. Then I carried a pocket watch, because it was more irritating to take out. But I find that I just can’t live without it.”