Life seems to be getting faster and faster in the modern age – we no longer kill time, we try to save it.
In this high-paced, instant gratification culture, attention itself has become a commodity, with websites and other media vying for traffic and reaping the benefits from advertisers. Song intros have shortened from 30-40s down to single-digit duration, trends now have the lifespan of mayflies, and everyone is anxiously trying to keep up with whatever the next big thing is.
Gig economies, personal brands, influencers, microcelebrity – the barrage of online content flickers by as fast as our retinas will hold it. Augmented reality is poised to further enmesh the online world with the real, giving even less sanctuary from the tumult of notifications, recommendations, and update requests. David Bowie, the artist whose work deals with time perhaps more than any other, got it spot on in “Modern Love”:
“It’s not really work / It’s just the power to charm / I’m still standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye / But I try, I try”.
It’s unsurprising that with so many demands on our attention, and a cultural climate the insists you have to be up-to-date at all times, that time itself is becoming more precious. Especially so for today’s youth, raised with a you-can-have-it-all mindset and conditioned to be at the beck and call of their apps, but physiologically no different from the earliest Cro-Magnon who laboriously sketched a bull on a cave wall.
Against this background, the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine to three pioneers of circadian biology could hardly be more, well, if you’ll excuse the pun, timely. The discovery of the molecular basis for biological rhythms launched an entire field of enquiry, and it could hardly be more appropriate that the decisive work was done in an organism whose life, like the mayfly, is almost a metaphor for transience – the fruit fly.
The field itself has deepened and diversified since those early discoveries in the 1980s – we now understand that circadian rhythms are a cellular phenomenon, and the study of biological rhythms has extended to include lunar cycles, metabolism, and disease.
Academia too, has been subject to the same changes as pressures as life on the outside, with a greater and greater emphasis on speed. Journals advertise how speedily they can publish work, the daily activities of academics are a medley that belies the sleepy leather-armchair stereotype of yore, and the time pressure on young scientists has arguably never been greater in an environment that has gone from being competitive to hypercompetitive to almost unhinged.
Science has shown us that we have our own rhythms, but these days, we seldom have our own time.