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Why spring ahead? March 11, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben thinks there’s something screwy about humans’ attempts to calculate time and date. We live in the age of the atomic clock, which calculates time with such accuracy that the error factor is one second every 30 million years. Yet look at how we calculate time:

* We carve the world into bazillion different time zones.

* Most of us here in the States jump back and forth in time with the biannual (that would be twice yearly, as opposed to biennial, once every two years) shift to and from Daylight Saving Time. (A concept invented by our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, as a joke. Unfortunately, Richard Nixon didn’t see the humor and signed DST into law in 1974, though it wasn’t all Tricky Dick’s fault; we’d been sporadically subjected to DST since 1918.)

* Not only do our months have different numbers of days, but our calendar is still, despite endless attempts over the millennia to upgrade it, so inaccurate that we have to tack on an “extra” day every four years just to catch up. (Ever wonder why it’s called “leap year”? Apparently it’s because the post-February 29 fixed holidays in that year all “leap” one day ahead. Stupid excuse for a stupid name!)

* Even our arrangement of seasons could use an upgrade. Silence Dogood has been reading cookbooks that divide the year into five seasons according to the foods that are available then: spring, summer, late summer, fall, and winter. This makes a lot of sense for folks who are trying to eat locally and seasonally, since the fruits and veggies available in late summer are markedly different from those available earlier. (Our friend Ben supposes that, according to this way of looking at things, the five seasons should be called Growth, Ripening, Harvest, Harvest Home, and Rest. But I digress.)

Humans have been obsessed with calibrating the passage of time for so many centuries it seems inherent to our state, from knotted ropes burned with oil, each knot signifying an hour, to hourglasses, to clocks, to stopwatches, and finally to computer screens and smartphones that are linked to the atomic clock. But the obsession with time, in the sense of maximizing it, really began in the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The factories that this so-called revolution inspired focused on productivity rather than quality, churning out so many gadgets and gizmos a minute, and this has been our paradigm ever since, leading to our modern exaltation of multitasking, at whatever cost to the product, the consumer, and the producer.

Maximizing profit by getting more, more, more (product) in less, less, less (time) is such an obvious business formula nobody even thinks to question it. The speed by which any task is accomplished is valued far more than the quality of the work. (Our friend Ben, a very fast thinker and worker, is only too aware of this, and its drawbacks.)

Carpe diem: Seize the day. Severed from business and its need to make a profit, the driver of our obsession with time, as I see it, is our knowledge that we will inevitably die, try as we might to extend our lives and defy the laws of nature. Who wants to die? Not me! Who wants to make the most of every moment before the inevitable catches up with us? Sign me up.

All this leads me to wonder if other highly intelligent species—the great apes, whales, dolphins, higher parrots, ravens and crows, elephants, vultures, etc.—place a value on time. We believe that humans are the only ones with any sense of death and its inevitability, and that this has not only shaped us as a species and shaped our priorities, but determined our priorities. (And not always for the better.) Our friend Ben asks, is this fundamental assumption even true? I would love to see some scientific research on other creatures’ perception of and relationship with time.

As for me, I think we’d be healthier and happier as a species if we embraced the Paleolithic model and took our time doing what we thought mattered, as opposed to what our corporate masters told us mattered. Doing what felt right to us, rather than punching the clock. Relying on our internal clock rather than the one on the wall.

But who knows? Perhaps the Cro-Magnons would have all been thrilled to wear Rolexes: “Tor, if you don’t get that bison hump back here by 3, I won’t have time to char it for our supper. And Og, if you’re not back in this cave in five minutes with some kindling, you can forget about having any blackened bison hump for supper tonight!”

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