Diary

Privatising Time

22 February 2007 | Diary

I’ve not worn a watch in a good year or so. There is something preferable about being a ‘timeless person’. Of course, you still live in the world of minutes and hours along with everyone else but it’s liberating to ditch the symbol of it from your personal attire and you certainly do get out of the habit of clock-watching when you’re no longer carrying a clock around with you.

A watch is something that creatures of time carry around with them in the fashion of an air-breathing scuba diver would take a tank of air with him on a trip underwater. Away from clocks, you carry a watch. In fact, you wear one anyway. Imagine that scuba diver wearing his scuba goggles and air tank while sitting at home. That, sir, is obsessive.

My current excuse for not wearing watches is that “I’m allergic to them”. After a while they do in fact cause me to sweat and after a further while causes a little patch of eczema. There is a medical reason for my lack of punctuality. Take that, society. The laws of time don’t apply to me – I got a note from my mummy.

This was all well and good two months ago when meeting people usually consisted of meeting my own chums and other bohemian layabouts in cafes. I used to live like a character from an Haruki Maurakami novel, that is, in fairly luxurious and self-inflicted unemployment. But needs must as the devil drives et cetera and I am now working as an office-bound librarian of sorts. The world of work is one of meetings and lunch hours and cigarette breaks and deadlines and flexitime and agendas and minutes and all manner of other time-related ideas.

I’m still determined not to wear a watch though. Me = Anarchist.

While actually working this problem is taken care of by the fact that my laptop has an everpresent clock on the screen: further testament to the fact that no one really wants to think about time other than the drearily employed.

Lunchbreak can be problematic though. I can usually guess within five minutes but getting back to the office five minutes late never looks good even if you frequently counter the occurrence by arriving five minutes early. So I’ve started lunching in the park at the back of the office building. It is within earshot (and ‘eyeshot’ too!) of the University bell tower, which chimes politely and unobtrusively every fifteen minutes.

If only all clocks were ‘public’ and infrequent rather than ‘privatised’ and on every wrist and screen. I feel sorry for time locked up in watches just as I feel sorry for air locked up in bubblewrap. How demeaning for it.

All this thinking about time is due to my reading Faster: the acceleration of nearly everything by James Gleik. I’ve just discovered that there is a nice website to accompany the book. As a massive fan of “short range vertical transport” vehicles (I have written about them here on occasion), I was very happy to see a chapter in this book about elevator behaviour (relating in particular to the door-close button).

The chapter kicks off with this quote from Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby (have you read that one, ?):

““In the elevator industry, a door close button is called a pacifier button. They’re installed simply to give the illusion of control to your elevator ride. They’re almost never hooked up to a real switch.”

Apparently (as I have frequently suspected) the button does nothing. It is as good as a placebo. In Japan, according to the book, elevator designers noticed that door-close buttons in Toyko have been jabbed so many times that the paint frequently flakes off them. So they installed other calming “placebos” including screens with peaceful images of blooming cherry blossoms. What powerful cultural signifiers! The image of a melting door-close button could almost be an emblem of the Tokyo business scene – Hell, Japanese society at large.

I have a theory about people’s impatience at the elevator doors seemingly not closing fast enough. Despite the fact that most elevator doors are defaulted to close after a tiny five seconds, people go nuts with impatience. It takes place, I reckon because elevators (and some other forms of transitional space) are “time traps”. Because of the way our behaviour is shaped by these environments – the close proximity to other people, the transient nature of it all – time seems to slow down, or rather we become more aware of its passing. It’s a phenomenon akin to the fact that you’re advised by dentists to brush your teeth for three minutes but only ever manage about 30 seconds: it’s not because you want to cut short this activity but because one’s gob is such a sensory organ it is difficult to perceive exactly how much time has passed.

Time to sign off, I think. Going to listen to Jon Ronson talking with his mouth at the Mitchell Library tonight.



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