On the types, measures, and value of time

In Slaughterhouse-Five, author Kurt Vonnegut describes the aliens from Tralfamadore, who see in four dimensions instead of three. While humans can only perceive a single moment in time at once, as the peak of a single mountain, the Tralfamadorians perceive the entire flow of time—past, present, and future—at once, as the panorama of a mountain range.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of time, from the role it plays in my own life, to its importance in society, to even more broadly, how it dictates the entirety of our evanescent human existence. Inspired by this commencement address 10 timeframes, by Paul Ford, and also by a lot of thinking on a specific product feature (codename: “timeline”) in my work for TurnRight, this post contains some of my fragmented observations and musings on the relationship of Time to us all. Just as French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in exploring new lands but in having new eyes,” it is my hope that by revisiting the ordinary and the familiar through the lens of time, you see things just a little bit differently. So it goes.

Types of time:

Let’s start with two truisms of time: first, “time heals all wounds,” and second, “use your time wisely.” If we look closely, the two “times” are not the same: the first Time conjures up the image of a supreme arbiter, all-encompassing and all-powerful, yet fair and just; the second time merely describes a possession or faculty that individuals have control over. Based on this, I think we can separate our commonly used notions of time into two camps: personal time with a lowercase ‘t’ and Universal Time with a capital ‘T’. Starting from its creation, every tangible object or being, from a human being to a giraffe to a kitchen knife to a star possesses personal time; the complete duration of your time from beginning to end is called your lifespan. On the other hand, independent of our individual, insignificant lifespans exists Universal Time, which according to Steven Hawking, started right at the Big Bang. While the most common visual paradigm of time is a clock, let’s try another representation: look around you and pretend every person and object around you has a progress bar hovering above them (for all of you gamers, just like an HP bar). How full each bar is represents the age of that individual or object. Look in the mirror—you have one too. Look up into the sky: that big progress bar represents the lifespan of the universe—Universal Time. The end of each progress bar is the end of that respective living being or object’s lifespan: the sun will die in approximately 5 billion years; you and I will die in less than a century. While it may seem silly and trivial to capture lifespans as progress bars, It would probably do us well to think about our own mortality from time to time—I am reminded of the wise words of Steve Jobs in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech: “remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. We are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Measures of time:

Perhaps because we humans can’t see in the fourth dimension, we have invented many measures to keep track of time, all of them man-made. You can think of these measures as the divisions in the hovering progress bars we envisioned earlier. The basic unit of time is duration. The specific man-made units range in a spectrum from infinitesimally small (milliseconds, microseconds) to unfathomably large (eons, light years). Most of our commonly used measures of time lie somewhere in the middle: some quantitative, such as seconds, hours, days, years, and centuries; some qualitative, such as past, present, and future. Interestingly enough, according to Paul Ford, most of the common measures of time, such as decades, were only invented in recent human history. The takeaway: these units of time are man-made and can be changed (Daylight Savings Time, anyone?); when they do change, they change human behaviors, patterns of thought, and lifestyles.

One of the biggest problems facing society today is a mismatch between big problems (climate change, global economic disaster, the Social Security crisis here in the United States) that require long-termed thinking and gritty decision-making to solve, and the short-term myopia of our leaders and common people (who are just looking to win the next re-election or get their next paycheck). While a part of our inability to solve these pressing issues lies in our inherent psychological biases toward short-termed, impulsive thinking, I have another hypothesis: in the age of Twitter, Gmail, text messaging and Facebook notifications, we need to invent smaller and smaller time scales—smaller and smaller blips on our progress bars—to keep up with the speed of information that bombards us every day. This push is largely spearheaded by businesses—for example, milliseconds for algorithmic stock traders means millions more dollars in revenue, and there’s a reason Google keeps working to improve the speed of its Search, if only milliseconds at a time. Gradually, this corporate push toward smaller time scales seeps into the public consciousness, until it enters common, everyday use. This wouldn’t be a problem, except our limited brains can only handle so much information, and keeping track of smaller and smaller divisions of time takes energy and cognitive capacity (imagine counting each millimeter line on a ruler)—it’s no surprise we are more stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed with information overload than ever before. How does this affect decision-making? Well, being bogged down with the next Tweet or next text message or next email shortens our individual attention spans, fracturing our focus, and crowding out our ability to look into the future, where the solutions to all of our big apocalyptic problems lie. On the flip side of the spectrum, while it is true that astrophysicists and cosmologists are inventing enormous timescales to observe and measure the universe, these large time scales don’t counterbalance the smaller ones espoused by social media, smart phones, and Google, which affect our daily lives and culture in a way that the discovery of dark energy in Galaxy X does not. Collectively, its no wonder that we as a society have shorter attention spans and more myopic perspectives than ever before.

The value of time:

Because we as humans value life, and our time is the measure of our lives, we value time. Specifically, we value our personal time more than we value Universal Time, which existed long before we were born and will exist long after we die (there is, however, one proportionally minuscule period of recent Universal Time that is relevant to our lives—we call this blip History, and offer it in college as a major and on television as a channel). Just how valuable is personal time? To answer this question, let’s use a metaphor: personal time, like money, is a currency. You can spend your time, save it, waste it, borrow it, give it, and share it with other people. Just like money, most of us don’t find time intrinsically valuable, but as a means to another end, such as pleasure, money, love, creation, or happiness. However, the closer a person gets to the end of their lifespan, the more they value time as precious in and of itself. Further, the value of time seems to ebb and flow with the value of money, which you value most in the middle of your life, when you need money for a house, a car, kids, and a spouse, and less as you get older. Neither currency seems to correlate strongly with happiness. A Princeton University study reveals that after $75,000 a year in income in the U.S., money does not correlate with day-to-day happiness, while psychological research suggests that your happiest moments occur when you lost track of time—a phenomenon called flow.

In general, which is more valuable, money or time? In our day and age of 24/7 work, sleep deprivation, and global travel, most of us would instantly answer “time,” but markets suggest another story: on average, those who specialize in managing the money of others (stock brokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers) earn more than those who specialize in managing the time of others (secretaries, time management gurus, lifestyle coaches). In addition, while the homeless and the imprisoned have an abundance of time, few of us would trade places with them. Here, it seems that money is more valuable than time. There seem to be two reasons for this: while most of us are born with a wealth of time, few of us are born with a wealth of money. Second, although all of us know what it’s like to have too much time on our hands that we know what to do with it (boredom), few of us know what it’s like to have too much money on our hands (Mark Zuckerberg) that we know what to do with. But this is only an incomplete analysis. After all, it seems that the most important qualification of both currencies is not merely large quantities, but the freedom and choice to spend them.

More on time, soon.