Digital Media and Our Experience of Time

Early in the life of this site, which is to say about eight years ago, I commented briefly on a story about five scientists who embarked on a rafting trip down the San Juan River in southern Utah in an effort to understand how “heavy use of digital devices” was affecting us. The trip was the brainchild of a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, David Strayer, and Matt Ritchel wrote about it for the Times.

I remember this story chiefly because it introduced me to what Strayer called “third day syndrome,” the tendency, after about three days of being “unplugged,” to find oneself more at ease, more calm, more focused, and more rested. Over the past few years, Strayer’s observation has been reinforced by my own experience and by similar unsolicited accounts I’ve heard from several others.

As I noted back in 2010, the rafting trip led one of the scientists to wonder out loud: “If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential … What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

I’m sure the idea that we are walking around fatigued will strike most as entirely plausible. That we’re not realizing our full cognitive potential, well, yes, that resonates pretty well, too. But, that’s not what mostly concerns me at the moment.

What mostly concerns me has more to do with what I’d call the internalized pace at which we experience the world. I’m not sure that’s the most elegant formulation for what I’m trying to get at. I have in mind something like our inner experience of time, but that’s not exactly right either. It’s more like the speed at which we feel ourselves moving across the temporal dimension.

Perhaps the best metaphor I can think of is that of walking on those long motorized walkways we might find at an airport, for example. If you’re not in a hurry, maybe you stand while the walkway carries you along. If you are in a hurry or don’t like standing, you walk, briskly perhaps. Then you step off at the end of the walkway and find yourself awkwardly hurtling forward for a few steps before you resume a more standard gait.

So that’s our experience of time, no? Within ordinary time, modernity has built the runways, and we jump on and hurry ourselves along. Then, for whatever reason, we get dumped out into ordinary time and our first experience is to find ourselves disoriented and somehow still feeling ourselves propelled forward by the some internalized temporal inertia.

I feel this most pronouncedly when I take my two toddlers out to the park, usually in the late afternoons after a day of work. I delight in the time, it is a joy and not at all a chore, yet I frequently find something inside me rushing me along. I’ve entered into ordinary time along with two others who’ve never known any other kind of time, but I’ve been dumped into it after running along the walkway all day, day in and day out, for weeks and months and years. On the worst days, it takes a significant effort of the will to overcome the inner temporal inertia and that only for a few moments at a time.

This state of affairs is not entirely novel. As Harmut Rosa notes in Social Acceleration, Georg Simmel in 1897 had already remarked on how “one often hears about the ‘pace of life,’ that it varies in different historical epochs, in the regions of the contemporary world, even in the same country and among individuals of the same social circle.”

Then I recall, too, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s experience boarding at a monastery in the late 1950s. Fermor relates the experience in A Time to Keep Silence:

“The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

I read this, in part, as the description of someone who was re-entering ordinary time, someone whose own internal pacing was being resynchronized with ordinary time.

So I don’t think digital media has created this phenomenon, but I do think it has been a powerful accelerating agent. How one experiences time is complex matter and I’m not Henri Bergson, but one way to account for the experience of time that I’m trying to describe here is to consider the frequency with which we encounter certain kinds of stimuli, the sort of stimuli that assault our attention and redirect it, the kinds of stimuli digital media is most adept at delivering. I suppose the normal English word for what I’ve just awkwardly described is distraction. Having become accustomed to a certain high frequency rate of distraction, our inner temporal drive runs at a commensurate speed. The temporal inertia I’ve been trying to describe, then, may also be characterized as a withdrawal symptom once we’re deprived of the stimuli or their rate dramatically decreases. The total effect is both cognitive and affective: the product of distraction is distractedness but also agitation and anxiety.

Along these same lines, then, we might say that our experience of time is also structured by desire. Of course, we knew this from the time we were children: the more you await something the slower time seems to pass. Deprived of stimuli, we crave it and so grow impatient. We find ourselves in a “frenetic standstill,” to borrow a phrase from Paul Virilio. In this state, we are unable to attend to others or to the world as we should, so the temporal disorder is revealed to have moral as well as cognitive and affective dimensions.

It’s worth mentioning, too, how digital tools theoretically allow us to plan our days and months in fine grain detail but how they have also allowed us to forgo planning. Constant accessibility means that we don’t have to structure our days or weeks ahead of time. We can fiddle with plans right up to the last second, and frequently do so. The fact that the speed of commerce and communication has dramatically increased also means that I have less reason to plan ahead and I am more likely to make just-in-time purchases and just-in-time arrangements. Consequently, our experience of time amounts to the experience of frequently repeated mini-dashes to beat a deadline, and there are so many deadlines.

“From the perspective of everyday life in modern societies,” Harmut Rosa writes, “as everyone knows from their own experience, time appears as fundamentally paradoxical insofar as it is saved in ever greater quantities through the ever more refined deployment of modern technology and organizational planning in almost all everyday practices, while it does not lose its scarce character at all.” Rosa cites two researchers who conclude, “American Society is starving,” not for food, of course, “but for the ultimate scarcity of the postmodern world, time.” “Starving for time,” they add, “does not result in death, bur rather, as ancient Athenian philosophers observed, in never beginning to live.”

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2 thoughts on “Digital Media and Our Experience of Time

  1. The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! — Wordsworth

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