The Clocks Ahead Will Have Our Own Faces

Unrooted living is spawning the timeless schedule--with restaurants simultaneously serving breakfast cereal and martinis because people' s stomachs are running on different internal clocks

Time was, people rose with the sun. And they set with it, too. Nobody cared if it was sunny somewhere else. Voices didn't carry across the planet. Time was local: time to milk the cows, time to get in the corn, time to sit and rest. World time zones were ordained in 1884 but didn't catch on until right before World War I. Fifty years ago, few even imagined night skiing.

Increasingly, though, the andante beat of time will be juked and jazzed. The reliable rhythms of days and seasons will yield to the Constant Now.

The changes have already begun. Commerce and communications never cease. On cable-TV news shows, things happen at ``half past the hour.' ' You don't ask which hour, because local time is no longer the meaningful marker. Great events unfold in the electronic ether.

In the U.S., fewer than one-third of Americans now have a workweek of standard 9-to-5 days, and that share is shrinking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women and minorities are the most likely to work late shifts or irregular hours--as cashiers, clerks, or orderlies. White-collar workers are doing more work at home, inviting the urgency of the business world into what was once a refuge. Wall Street, for instance, is becoming a red-eye profession as round-the-clock markets make ``closing prices'' an obsolete concept. Unrooted living is spawning the timeless schedule--with restaurants simultaneously serving breakfast cereal and martinis because different people's stomachs are running on different internal clocks.

The question is, how will all this timeshifting affect people's lives in the next 100 years? The Internet never sleeps, but people do. They must. By loosening the constraint of time, are we liberating ourselves--or submitting to a kind of 21st century enslavement? As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling points out, ``3 a.m. is still the midnight of the human soul. And there are metabolic problems like seasonal affective disorder if you never see daylight.

'' On the good side, allowing people to live by their own clocks is profoundly democratic. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, doesn't even trouble its corporate guests to acknowledge local time. A ``one-night stay'' consists of any 24-hour span of the guest's choice. The program has already been extended to other properties in Asia, where flights often come and go at odd hours.

Quite a convenience. Yet, the death of shared daily routines will shake society to its core. A Los Angeles resident who routinely gets up in the middle of the night to telephone Tel Aviv is living in L.A. in body only. If your neighbors are on different clocks from yours, then who will be part of your community? Perhaps the people on your E-mail list. Perhaps no one.


To see where this is headed, take the trends that killed Sunday store-closings--demand for convenience, odd work hours--and move them into warp speed. Almost every service, from lawyers to marriage counselors to golf pros, will operate 24 hours or risk death. Work will start at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., depending on your preference. What will matter is what's delivered, not when it's done. Units of time will become fungible, like dollar bills: each moment fully interchangeable with each other moment.

Timelessness can become a kind of tyranny. Remember when the image of a portable computer at the beach signaled freedom? Now, it's a sign that the office never goes away. People bring their cell phones into concert halls and churches because, to them, rudeness is a lesser sin than missing an important call.

The problem comes down to movement vs. meaning. Longer trading hours, for instance, will mean more trades--but not necessarily better trades. James C. Ackerman, president of online brokerage Sloan Securities Corp., complains that 24-hour trading ``won't give anybody time to sit and breathe and think.'' Instant access to information at all hours of the day could fill elevators and waiting rooms with ``newszak' ' that numbs the brain. Increased efficiency is supposed to mean doing more things in the same time, not the same thing in less time. ``Humans have not evolved to move at supersonic speeds,'' says Howard Rheingold, a West Coast commentator on technology.

A reaction is already building. Stewart Brand, environmental pundit and author of the Whole Earth Catalog, is leading a project to create a giant clock that will run without winding for 10,000 years, ticking once a year. He hopes ``The Clock of the Long Now,'' as he calls it in a new book (review, in Books), will remind people of the planet' s continuity and their responsibility for it. In Silicon Valley, birthplace of hyperspeed ``Internet time,'' executives such as's Jeffrey P. Bezos and Netscape Communications Corp. co-founder Marc Andreessen have taken to bragging about how much sleep they get. For them, the ultimate status symbol is the power to live by nature's clock rather than the Net's.

There is no going back to the agrarian past, of course. But some people will learn to dip in and out of the 24-hour flow, living by routines that suit them rather than chasing after a sun that never sets. Elizabeth DeMotte is one. As a Singapore-based employee of America' s Ritz-Carlton Co., DeMotte says she gets her work done in ``a very natural ebb and flow'' over any 24-hour period. ``I think a contemporary global executive who tries to conform to traditional ideas of workdays and time off is not only ineffective, but burning the candle at both ends,'' she says. Interesting--it was the candle, illuminating the night, that started us down this road.

One Man Opts for Slowing Down Instead of Speeding Up

Howard Rheingold is a West Coast consultant on technology and its impact on society. He has written several books, ranging from 1988' s Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind, to The Virtual Community: Homesteading at the Electronic Frontier in 1993. The eclectic writer has tried to foster discussion about future trends through his Rheingold' s Brainstorms site ( He recently spoke with Diane Brady, Business Week's Connecticut bureau chief, about the perils of scrapping time constraints in the new millennium.

Q: We're entering an era when everything from stock markets to food markets never close and people can work at any hour of the day. Is this liberating?

A: Not really. Technological development and human adaptation to technological development have given us a lot of freedom and power. We're beginning to see the predictions of the 1950s come to fruition. But humans have not evolved to move at supersonic speeds. We either adjust to this transnational pace and our bodies suffer, or we modify our bodies.

Q: That sounds severe. How do you modify your body?

A: That's a good question. There's more and more pressure on people to do that, yet you have to wonder how many will succeed. The adoption of the Internet has changed our world so fast. It's hard to know if you're keeping up sometimes.

Q: How are you doing on that front?

A: I am rejecting keeping up with the pace of things. I am trying to spend more time at a human pace. It takes a real effort to get away from the technology now and then. You get labeled a Luddite, but I think it's important.

Q: What's the risk? Can't people just set their own hours?

A: Can you work 24 hours a day? Can you work 16 times faster? How much do you want to work? At what point do you start breaking down? More and more people are going to die. More and more people will get sick. More and more people can't keep up.

Q: So what's the solution? Will we end up going back to the way things were?

A: People may become more selective about how they use their time. In the future, those who can afford to drop out of the rat race will. They'll learn to live at a human pace, instead of the one that seems the most efficient for getting everything done.

Business Week: August 30, 1999

Department: Cover Story -- 21 Ideas for the 21st Century: Time Headline: 5: The Clocks ahead Will Have Our Own Faces

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Q&A: One Man Opts for Slowing Down Instead of Speeding Up

Byline: By Diane Brady



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