If you feel that life is moving faster, you're right
One recent morning in Nairobi, Kenya, I was sitting in the ninth-floor lobby of a downtown office building, waiting for the Tanzanian High Commission to issue me a visa. Several Kenyans were also waiting. But the office was as empty as a ghost town.
One man, holding a handful of passports for his clients, chuckled. “They are just taking their tea,” he said. “Tanzanians love their tea!” Another man looked at his watch and shook his head in disgust. Finally, a woman sauntered down the hallway and sat at a desk. After a few minutes, she looked up, took our passports, and told us to come back at 3:30.
In the elevator on the way down, the Kenyans were fuming. “It’s unbelievable,” one of them said. “Those people are so lazy.”
It might have been unbelievable to them, but it wasn’t to me. I had once lived in Tanzania, and one of the most difficult and disorienting things about it was adjusting to Tanzanian notions of time. There, time seemed to expand around events rather than contract to constrain them. Transitions were gentler. The flow was more measured. Things happened in a way that suggested time was not finite, but something of which there was plenty, if you knew the proper way to wait.
Kenya used to be more like that. But Kenya, or at least Nairobi, has changed. What has happened there is the same thing that has happened in the West: The idea of time has grown more linear, more compressed, and more accelerated as it pushes forward into the future.
It’s no accident that this has occurred during a period of rapid economic growth. Linear time has been both a product of and a key to industrialization. For several thousand years, sundials, water clocks, and hourglasses measured time well enough, but they had their limits. It wasn’t until mechanical timepieces became more accurate that time could be divided and used more efficiently. In the industrialized world, these clocks gave us more control over our day and sent us hurtling into a linear future. In 1934, the U.S. historian and writer Lewis Mumford called the clock “the key machine of the modern industrial age.”
Clocks essentially transformed our sense of time into something independent of us, as opposed to something we participated in. Clock time ticked away at the same steady rate regardless of what we did. It was something we could quantify. It allowed us to sever the day precisely into work and play, into personal and professional, into company time and time off. It allowed people to sell minutes of their life the same way they sold widgets. Time became scarce. Time became money. The time we sold was work; the time we didn’t sell was ours.
For the last 300 years, this has been the dominant mode of industrial societies. It has been the subject of laws and strikes and riots. But it is not something that comes naturally to us. Before reliable timepieces existed, time was seen as cyclical, as something that would come around again. It was seen as emerging from events themselves, not from a clock on the wall.
These different notions of time can be complex to think about, but they are real. Adapting to a new idea of time was one of the most profound changes I’d undergone while living abroad. And although I’d thought a lot about this phenomenon, I never had the right words for it – until I came across some articles in the journal Time and Society that referred to our collection of assumptions about time as our “timescape,” a term coined in the 1990s by social scientist Barbara Adam.
A timescape is the shape that time takes in our mind – the way we see it rolling out in front of us and behind us. It is the texture of time as it unfolds. It can feel different in different contexts (work, home, vacation, meetings) or in different cultures. For example, while we may view time as stretching out in front of us and the past trailing behind us, the Aymara people of the Andes refer to the past as being in front of them and the future behind them; that’s because the past is something they can see, while the future remains hidden. To celebrate the new year, Madagascar’s Malagasy speakers, who also see time this way, say, “Congratulations for being reached by the year.”
The issue of “temporal diversity” was at the top of the agenda of the Tutzing Time Ecology Conference in 2000. The researchers – who are part of a German initiative that looks at how time affects society – believed that many of the older, slower timescapes were endangered by the increasing push for time compression and acceleration.
That acceleration was what I saw in the office in Nairobi. And while it may be the cost of wealth, of progress, and of a certain kind of productivity, I can’t help agreeing with the Tutzing folks, who concluded that “only by immersing ourselves in each form of time … can we benefit from the variety of forms of time that exist.”
The relatively young industrial work-play timescape has undergone a major shift with the rise of connective technology. It has given way to what researchers call the “nonstop society,” or “timeless time,” in which people are always available and things are more accelerated and compressed than ever. The computer – the invention that allowed us so much more control over our lives – seems also to have taken it away.
But this trend has not yet made it to the ninth-floor office of the Tanzanian High Commission. When I showed up at 3:30, there was, of course, no one there. In the lobby, three window washers sat with their ropes, waiting to get paid. It was hard to tell whether they thought they were wasting time or felt they had plenty.
I did have other things I wanted to do. But as the minutes ticked by and I found myself looking at my own watch, I tried to remind myself what I had learned all those years ago. Time is money, yes. But time can be many other things. I tried to bend my mind backward, and I could almost get into that other place, where things weren’t quite so urgent. It felt different, better, gentler. It was a place where time felt like life.