SAN FRANCISCO — At some computer work stations, an automatic alarm clock within the system reminds users what time of day it is.
"It prevents burnouts," said one federal government employee who works with the latest high-speed computations.
"The computer speeds up the thinking process and relieves the doldrums of an eight-hour day."
For others, however, the computer has become a time trap, monitoring their progress and forcing them to produce information at a faster, more frantic pace.
Speed, speed, speed. It seems to be a byword of a high-tech industry hurling itself at a breakneck pace toward the future regardless of the consequences to society and basic human values.
The rippling-down effect of the nanosecond culture is contagious. A billboard ad near a San Francisco commuter route reads, "Who Has Time to Go Grocery Shopping?" and offers a service that will buy and deliver bags of food for busy people.
At Stanford University, philosophers have written computer programs to teach students logic at a pace far faster than classroom instruction. In Silicon Valley, Apple Computer's Macintosh development team wears T-shirts reading, "Working 90 Hours a Week and Loving It." Store clerks are becoming faceless drones as they rush customers through automated checkout counters.
Computers are always waiting for instructions, which they respond to in measures of a nanosecond, or a billionth of a second. Once programmed, the modern machine can carry out a set of orders with the illusion of intelligence, unreeling a sequence of events into the future without further human assistance.
Clocks, invented in the 14th Century, brought schedules into the world, allowing industrialization and commerce to mushroom by replacing the time sequence of natural biological and physical rhythms with hour-dominated working days. Computers have now taken time and crunched and organized it at a speed beyond the realm of anything humans can experience.
The recent stock market crash, caused in part by investment computers pre-programmed to react to a formulaic set of events, has given a signal that faster is not always better.
"It's a major warning to us," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation of Economic Trends and author of the controversial and insightful book, "Time Wars," (Holt, $18.95). "Whole other sections of our national life are being increasingly run by computer programs with decisions made in nanoseconds.
"The stock market is a prime example of a computer takeover affecting the lives and fortunes of millions of people. It should make us realize we're increasingly losing control of our destinies."
Rifkin maintains that a major political battle is brewing over the conception and control of time, the outcome of which will determine the future of society in the next century. The stock market's manipulation by machines, he said, is a tame scenario contrasted with the specter of a "Star Wars" weapons system in which computers will make the ultimate decision within nanoseconds on whether to launch a nuclear attack.
"Human beings still have the power to intervene," Rifkin said. "In a programmed nanosecond culture, which is a simulated future, real human beings don't engage. The computer carries on the activity, anticipating in advance how things will unfold. It's bizarre."
Stewart Brand, who lives on a tugboat in Sausalito, has brought his counterculture roots into high-tech society and believes that humans will be able to balance the excesses of a speed-oriented computer future. Creator of the "Whole Earth Catalog," and "Whole Earth Software Catalog," Brand has taken a dazzling look at developing technology in the recently published book, "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT."
In "Media Lab," Brand takes readers through labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where there are talking desks, lifelike holographic images suspended in air, interactive entertainment, telephones that can chat with your friends, and computers that "learn" the likes and dislikes of their user so that they can select such things as what television programs to watch.
Brand questions whether computers are speeding out of control, saying that which technologies become commonplace is largely a matter of individual choice.
"If there's too much, too fast, too expensive, we check it out and back off," Brand said in an interview. "Human nature is pretty much of a constant."
The stock market computer manipulations, he said, were timely because they served to teach people what can happen if machines are given control to trigger a set of circumstances without human involvement.
"We've got to hope that various information disasters happen early and often so we can build caution into the systems," said Brand. "When computers are dealing with computers in computer time, then things can get crazy."