Are You Wasting Time? Do You Even Know What Time It Is?
And also, does time even exist?
By Katya Lien
Dataworld is a monthly column that reports on the state of things — in general and particular. Each month, Katya asks real people real questions to reveal what people are really thinking. If you want to be part of the data next time, find our next survey: ♡here♡
It’s summertime. And it’s a time when everyone is always talking about time — free time, wasted time, unprecedented times, endtimes. So, Dataworld has dared to take a step back and investigate just that: time.
As always, we like to start with the basics. Some experts like to conceptualize time as a dimension, a healing entity, decomposing agent, or even as money. Dataworld suggests starting with broader strokes. For starters, let’s think about time as an infinite thing that can be broken into chunks. This should come easy to the reader; chunks of time such as hours, minutes, or seconds might sound familiar. But if we’ve learned anything from Law & Order deposition scenes, it’s that people don’t tend to recall and reflect on time by the hour, minute, or second. Our memories don’t tend to be time stamped with particularly high fidelity. Rather, we live and reminisce more naturally by the light of beginnings, middles, and ends, repeating however many times over as they might, and not always in that order. Having aligned on that recurring triplet as the fundamental makeup of our daily and eternal lives, Dataworld decided to ask the people which leg of the stool is more important. (See Exhibit A.)
The results indicate a craving for some flavor of finitude. And it’s really no wonder, as one of the biggest troubles of modern life is this: infinity. It’s everywhere. Infinity never used to be an important amount (of time or of anything else), not for people, not really. It was the stuff of theorists, philosophers, and some genres of scientists — not the stuff that regular people (who are by and large more important in Dataworld’s estimation than theorists, philosophers, and some genres of scientists). But for the first time in the long arc of civilization, regular people are forced to confront infinity every day.
The modern world is marked by incessant consumption and gratification and we know this all too well. Even in the face of disparity and lack, the big message of the modern world is, You Can Have All You Need And More. We’ll Sell It To You. And Once Those Needs Are Fulfilled, You’ll Identify More And Newer Needs, And We’ll Fulfill All Of Those For You Too. One might call it the hamster wheel of Desire and Satisfaction. Monks are known to try and escape this!
Dataworld digresses. Back to the examples of infinity that plague our everyday life. Consider this: Businesses calculate something called Customer Lifetime Value (abbreviated to CLV) and then quickly set about figuring how to maximize it and ensure their supply of customers never runs dry. It’s the arithmetic of turning finite profit into infinite profit. Scary. Almost as scary as the endless scrolls of Twitter and Tiktok feeds which make algorithmically possible what has baffled many a 15 year old mind, post gravity bong in someone’s mom’s basement: a neverending expanse, nevermind what of.
Therein lies the plague. The physical instantiation and commodification of infinity is the problem. Infinity belongs to the realm of the imagination. It should be something at which to muse, something to dream about, and be cradled by, and get scared of. Not something to contend with in the flesh and on the daily.
Dataworld finds that, in the face of all this infinitude, people want their days, years, and lives to be punctuated. Not in the extreme, necessarily, not by way of a 2012-style Mayan calendar catastrophe. But perceptibly, palpably, rhythmically. In a way that affords closure begets newness. Give the people what they want!
After all this, Dataworld can’t help but muse at the inadequacies of your standard, run-of-the-mill physicist's definition of time: “the interval over which change occurs” (Dataworld googled this, google says this is how physicists define time). Knowing physicists are obsessed with things like parabolas and wondering whether rocks and crumbs might fall at similar rates, it’s no wonder they’d come up with such a twisted and hollow definition for the pulsing current of human life. It’s no wonder that they’d insinuate that time only exists insofar as we can perceive it. When Dataworld posed this line of thinking to our respondents, we found that people either rejected it, were freaked out by it, or immediately sprung into mental gymnastics to make themselves think they weren’t freaked out by it (see Exhibit B).
Thankfully, in a sea of (rightfully) disturbed responses, Dataworld found hope. In the words of one virtuous respondent, “Why would I need to care about that?”. The answer is, you don’t! You don’t have to accept the physicists' definition. That definition is meager. Time is not just a tool for measuring. It can escape linearity. It can be sliced and diced. It can be lost. It can be seen in the harsh overhead light of lunchtime. It can be smelled at low tide. It can outrun us. We can sell it. We can keep it. We can carry it to the grave. We can confront and make amends with its infinitude by marking it however we’d like.
May you always have just enough time. And don’t let physicists lie to you.
*All quotes are real and from real ppl! Dataworld preserves the full integrity of responses, no edits.
Though all responses inform the analysis, not all responses are shown.