Obsessed with Speed

We’re a society obsessed with speed. Aldous Huxley noted, “Speed was the only experience unique to the 20th century”. Even flight had been known to mythology’s Icarus and the Montgolfier brothers in the 18th century. Contracting time and space with the help of sophisticated machinery was a fundamental part of the Modernist project.

Whether it’s financing our homes, , with “Quicken” Loans, maintaining our cars with “Jiffy” Lube, shipping packages with Federal “Express” or eating our meals we seem to be obsessed with living our lives “as quickly as possible“.

Perhaps the quintessential example of our obsession with speed is Elon Musks’s hyperloop, which is a proposed mode of transportation released by a joint team from Tesla and SpaceX. Drawing heavily from Robert Goddard’s Vactrain. A hyperloop comprises a sealed tube or system of tubes through which a pod may travel free of air resistance or friction conveying people or objects at optimal speed and acceleration.

Dirk Ahlborn, chief executive of “Hyperloop Transportation Technologies”, said: Hyperloop is “a system that could carry people from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds almost 800 mph, cutting the 400-mile trip to a little over 30 minutes.”

Even our favorite pastime, sports, cannot escape our obsession with speed. Just look at these recent headlines related to ways to speed-up sporting contests.

  • USGA adds video stations, chief referee to speed up Open rulings
  • NFL pledges to cut down on commercial breaks to speed up games
  • MLB attempts to speed up game with pace-of-play rulesFaster,
  • faster! 3 proposals to reduce length of college football games
  • Does watching college football need to be a four-hour commitment? How can games be shortened?

This is how a Surgical Specialty and Transplant unit (SSTU) at the University of Utah decided that rather than continually shaving seconds from the average response time, it was time to tackle the core problem of “help patients in real time” by preventing the need for a patient to call?

Of course the Mother of All enhanced speed projects may be the one being undertaken by, who else, Google, which says 10 Gigabit Internet is “On The Way“.

For an idea of just how fast that is, consider this. The average data transfer rate in the U.S. is 9.8 megabits per second (Mbps). Google’s existing Google Fiber service (currently available only in Kansas City), which runs at 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), is more than 100 times faster than the average rate in the United States. A speed of 10 gigabits per second would represent more than 1000 times the average data transfer rate currently available in U.S. That’s a staggering number but it speaks to the demand Google clearly understands and it is a demand of average consumers who are “obsessed with speed“.

Not to be outdone Microsoft now offers “load testing” software that allows Web developers to simulate Web applications as if they were being used by a worldwide community.

This may all sound a bit technical but it’s just examples of how businesses from JiffyLube to Google are convinced “speed” is the answer to getting and keeping customers. Those businesses may be getting quite far ahead of their customers.

Human beings feel the ebb and flow of daily life, the daily rhythms that shape our days. The most basic daily rhythm we live by is the sleep-wake cycle, which is related to the cycle of the sun. It makes us feel sleepy as the evening hours wear on, and wakeful as the day begins. Sleep-wake and other daily patterns are part of our circadian rhythms, (circum means “around” and dies, “day”) which are governed by the body’s internal or biological clock, housed deep within the brain. However, that biological clock is increasingly at variance by clocks used by computers and global data networks.

The idea of a biological clock may sound like a quaint metaphor, but there is actually a very distinct brain region that is charged with keeping time. It is an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN), situated right above the point in the brain where the optic nerve fibers cross. This location enables the SCN to receive the cues it needs from light in the environment to help it “keep time”.

Our modern obsession with time was born at the end of the 19th century. That’s when we our SCN became a critical part of the human anatomy. The end of the century was a global age like our own, linked across borders and continents and oceans. It was also a moment of great technological progress. Railways, steamships, subways, telephones, and radio thundered into existence all at once, collapsing distance and compressing time in ways that dazzled and disoriented.

Technology also forced greater precision of calculation and measurement. Many Westerners felt that globalization required more accurate and predictable ways of measuring time. As a Frankfurt literary society put it in 1864: “The more spatial separation is overcome … the more urgent and important is the need for a general, matching calculation of time.”

The first priority for time reformers was to replace the world’s impossible patchwork of local times with a universal system of territorial mean times. This was the dream articulated by Scottish-Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming and officially adopted by diplomats at the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C. a world divided into 24 zones, each with a single mean time determined by astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The subject of the conference was to discuss the choice of “a meridian to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world“. It resulted in selection of the Greenwich Meridian as the international standard for zero degrees longitude. One grumpy British reader wrote to “The Spectator” in 1907 that time reform “proposes to put us to bed and get us up by Act of Parliament. Personally, I like to choose my own time for these operations.” Historians observed, ‘challenged and ignored on every continent well into the 20th century, modern timekeeping did not simply emerge; it had to be imposed’.

Time reform also offers a startling, deeply relevant explanation of how technological change happens. Thrumming softly beneath Vanessa Ogle’s, The Global Transformation of Time, are the new tools of communication and transportation which brought the problem of global timekeeping into such stark relief in the first place: railways, steamships, the telegraph.

Time reform was modernity defined in Western terms, developed to suit the interests and assumptions of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. Synchronization made it easier for European elites to project their influence and sell their goods. But losses mounted among the poor and the powerless. In Natal, for instance, indigenous populations lost the right to mark time for themselves after missionaries deemed Zulu calendars wasteful and backwards. Around the world, local traditions and rhythms were erased in the name of progress. Opponents of time reform were astute enough to recognize that the future they were being forced to accept was neither necessary, equal nor democratic. It was designed to benefit some more than others.

The human relationship with time changed substantially with the arrival of modernity — trains and telegraphs and wristwatches all around — and we can see it changing yet again in our globally networked era. The human relationship with time is changing again. We’re not living in the railroad world anymore. We’re living in a networked world — a zone of experience where the sun neither rises nor sets. Our suprachiasmatic nucleus is becoming a less critical part of our anatomy. The rising and setting of the Sun does not govern Twitter. What time is it on Facebook?

Astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry and economist Steve Hanke argue that we should all adopt Greenwich Mean Time, also known as Universal Time which is based on International Atomic Time, with leap seconds added to keep it within 0.9 second of UT1.

Henry and Hanke also want to do away with the standard Gregorian calendar, which many countries have been using since the late 1500s. Under the new Henry-Hanke calendar, March 15 — or any other day, for that matter — falls on the same day of the week, year in and year out.

Hanke and Henry argue that the Internet has eliminated distance completely. Henry points out that from a physics perspective, there is only one time. Hanke says that a single time would be better for the economy by eliminating confusion. All that makes terrific sense from the perspective of a physics or economics professor but none of it redirects the arrow of time. It dosen’t relieve our obsession from financing our house with Rocket Mortgage or getting an oil change at Jiffy-Lube.

“Most physicists believe time’s arrow emerges from decoherence which is a characteristic of quantum physics. I think it may emerge from our obsession with speed and the fact that we just like the service at In-Out-Burger.



  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/your-bodys-internal-clock-and-how-it-affects-your-overall-health/254518/
  2. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/the-creation-of-modern-time/421419/
  3. Cassandra Willyard, One Time Zone for the World? | Science | Smithsonian, March 2016
  4. JAMES GLEICK, Time to Dump Time Zones — The New York Times, NOV. 5, 2016
  5. ADELE PETERS, Time Zones/ What If We Got Rid Of Them? | Fast Company, 2/26/16
  6. http://releases.jhu.edu/2011/12/27/time-for-a-change-johns-hopkins-scholars-say-calendar-needs-serious-overhaul/

Originally published at neutec.wordpress.com on October 30, 2017.



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