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Time Wars: THE PRIMARY CONFLICT IN HUMAN HISTORY by Jeremy Rifkin (Holt: $18.95; 263 pp.)

July 26, 1987|John Balzar | Balzar is a Times staff writer. His most recent article on the subject of time was published in the journal of the Precision Measurements Assn.

The passenger on the PSA flight fidgeted through her briefcase and huffed at the window. You know the type. Even at 600 miles an hour, she was not going fast enough. Here, you should read this, it was suggested. She barely glanced at the jacket of "Time Wars." "Gee, ah, I just don't have the time . . . " she hurried to explain, her face wearing a look of you-know-how-it-is.

Of course we do. Time enslaves us so exquisitely and completely that we rarely think to ponder it. And never, it seems, do we think to stand up to it.

So Jeremy Rifkin, author and environmental futurist, comes along and jolts us with an exciting and slightly chilling little book about how we allowed this relentless monkey of time to jump on our backs and whether we are going to turn blue because of its chokehold on us in this fast-paced age.

"It is ironic that in a culture so committed to saving time we feel increasingly deprived of the very thing we value," Rifkin begins.

Remember, time is not just one long, domineering and unchanging truth in the human experience. Different cultures have and still do make their own deals with time. And Rifkin is an entertaining historian--serving up short consciousness teasers, like the story of how the clock came to be. It was not, Rifkin writes, an invention to regulate commerce, or to facilitate communications or to propel society into some modern epoch.

Rather, he finds it was the 13th-Century response of Benedictine monks to the devotion: Never become idle. Sure enough, the clock proved the perfect machine to keep us busy. And if not achievement enough, Benedictines had a correspondingly swell idea that would come to dominate our planet--connecting a daily schedule of activity to the clock.

And think how greatly politics are shaped by fashions of time. Our government leaders are driven by the interval of elections--acting today to please voters for the next round of balloting. Rifkin tells of Iroquois Indian chiefs who judge their actions against the question, how will this decision please the seventh generation from today?

Rifkin switches from historian to futurist to worry about society's acquiescence to the artificial time and velocity of computers.

Haven't we all seen those modern human variants Rifkin calls "computer compulsives"--those with no patience for conversation or subtlety, but just a desire for quick information, even if the information is digitized gibberish?

And are more startling changes ahead? Rifkin finds students who, thanks to training in computers, reject concepts like creativity and free will as illusory. The students regard the brain as a fleshy computer, and a slow, self-deceiving one at that. One student explains: "You have to stop talking about your mind as though it were thinking. It's not. It's just doing."

Rifkin writes, "We now orchestrate an artificial time world, zipping along the electronic circuits of silicon chips, a time world utterly alien from the time a fruit takes to ripen, or a tide takes to recede. We have sped ourselves out of the time world of nature and into a fabricated time world where experience can only be simulated but no longer savored."

Just as traffic congestion is easier to describe than resolve, the invisible whip of time is easier for Rifkin to contemplate than to conquer. Unfortunately he tries, in a forgettable windup of hazy eco-polemics about getting in sync with our planet. Ha, as if anybody had time for that!

But excuse him for overreaching. Rifkin is the best thing on time since Rolex.

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