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Going to Extreme Measures

Even as digital countdowns and televised timers fill our waking hours, does anybody really know what time it is?

January 02, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

This story will take you approximately 11 minutes to finish. If you skip every other line, it will only take 5 1/2 .

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."

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