“Time is from before to now; from now to later. Time is when.”
By Maria Popova
“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track,” science writer James Gleick wrote in the final pages of his invigorating tour of our temporal imagination. Central to Gleick’s inquiry into our relationship with time is the observation that even humanity’s greatest thinkers, be the scientists or philosophers or poets, have failed to offer an adequate definition of what time actually is, producing instead a variety of aphorisms, wisecracks, and other clever evasions. (Susan Sontag, riffing on John Archibald Wheeler: “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Richard Feynman: “Time is what happens when nothing else happens.” Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”)
When Gleick was a boy of six, his mother, Beth Youman Gleick, gave her own answer to this perennially slippery question in Time Is When — a charming children’s book exploring one of the first external experiences of which we are aware: the substance and passage of time.
The original 1960 edition, now nearly impossible to find, features marvelous vintage artwork by sculptor and illustrator Harvey Weiss, who belonged to the same circle of Connecticut author and artist friends as Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak. In 2008, the book was reprinted in a new edition with different illustrations, but the original — of which I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — remains singularly scrumptious. Weiss’s drawings offer the perfect visual counterpart to the limber curiosity and elegant simplicity with which Gleick tackles one of the greatest complexities of existence by illustrating how the fragments in which we experience time — parts of the moment, parts of the day, parts of the year, parts of a lifetime — shape the nature and texture of our experience.
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
By Maria Popova
“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:
The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.
Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.
The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:
Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.
Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
“We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.”
By Maria Popova
“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed of the difficult pleasures of presence in the middle of the twentieth century, as the mechanized acceleration of modern life was beginning to take our already aggravated relationship with time to new frontiers of frustration. I thought of him one November morning shortly after I moved to New York when, already overwhelmed by the city’s pace, I swiped my brand new subway card at the turnstile and confidently marched through, only to jam my hips into the immobile metal rod. Puzzled, I looked over to the tiny primitive screen above the turnstile, which chided me coldly in cyan electronic letters: “SWIPE FASTER.” Just these two words, stern and commanding — no “PLEASE,” not even “TRY TO.” In the world’s fastest-paced city, even the mindless machines are temporally judgmental and make sure you remain on par.
Science was already hijacking time from the domain of metaphysics and fomenting the popular imagination with its rush of discoveries, so when Einstein and Bergson sat down for their famous debate in 1922, the moment was ripe to forever change our experience of time. (It may be a coincidence, but it is nonetheless an emblematic one, that 1955 was both the year Einstein died and the year scientists concretized the second itself by ceasing to tinker with its length, until then defined as 1/86,400 of the mutable duration of a real day.)
The impact of these and related developments on society and the human psyche are what the inimitable James Gleick explores in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (public library) — a book written nearly two decades ago that has not only stood the test of time but has grown all the more perceptive and prescient in the years since.
We are in a rush. We are making haste. A compression of time characterizes the life of the century.
We have a word for free time: leisure. Leisure is time off the books, off the job, off the clock. If we save time, we commonly believe we are saving it for our leisure. We know that leisure is really a state of mind, but no dictionary can define it without reference to passing time. It is unrestricted time, unemployed time, unoccupied time. Or is it? Unoccupied time is vanishing. The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole. The very variety of experience attacks our leisure as it attempts to satiate us. We work for our amusement.
Sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it: that is a myth we now live by.
To fully appreciate Gleick’s insightful prescience, it behooves us to remember that he is writing long before the social web as we know it, before the conspicuous consumption of “content” became the currency of the BuzzMalnourishment industrial complex, before the timelines of Twitter and Facebook came to dominate our record and experience of time. (Prescience, of course, is a form of time travel — perhaps our only nonfictional way to voyage into the future.) Gleick writes:
We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences — whether, perhaps, we face the biological dilemma of the waterflea, whose heart beats faster as the temperature rises. This creature lives almost four months at 46 degrees Fahrenheit but less than one month at 82 degrees.
Yet we have made our choices and are still making them. We humans have chosen speed and we thrive on it — more than we generally admit. Our ability to work fast and play fast gives us power. It thrills us… No wonder we call sudden exhilaration a rush.
Gleick considers what our units of time reveal about our units of thought:
We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond. This is the heyday of speed. “Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man,” laments the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, suggesting by ecstasy a state of simultaneous freedom and imprisonment… That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind.
Particle physicists may freeze a second, open it up, and explore its dappled contents like surgeons pawing through an abdomen, but in real life, when events occur within thousandths of a second, our minds cannot distinguish past from future. What can we grasp in a nanosecond — a billionth of a second? … Within the millisecond, the bat presses against the ball; a bullet finds time to enter a skull and exit again; a rock plunges into a still pond, where the unexpected geometry of the splash pattern pops into existence. During a nanosecond, balls, bullets, and droplets are motionless.
If the nanosecond seems too negligible to matter, it is only because we are fundamentally blinded by the biological limits of our perception. (We are, for instance, only just beginning to understand the monumental importance of the microbiome, imperceptible to the naked eye yet crucial to nearly every aspect of our bodily existence.) In 1849, when trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell became the first woman hired by the U.S. federal government for a non-domestic specialized skill, she labored as a “computer of Venus” — a sort of one-woman GPS, performing mathematically rigorous celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe. The nanosecond was still decades away from being measured and named, so her calculations, however adroit, were crude by modern standards. Today, as Gleick points out, an error of one nanosecond translates into a misplacement by one foot in modern GPS systems. This means that just a dozen nanoseconds can steer you the wrong way altogether.
But perhaps the most striking illustration of just how frantically we’ve fragmented time and how insistently we’ve imbued the fragments with restlessness comes from an unlikely source — a mid-century social science study published in 1959 under the title “Association of Specific Overt Behavior Pattern with Blood and Cardiovascular Findings,” the validity of which has since failed to hold up against scientific scrutiny but the linguistic legacy of which has only grown in the half-century since: In addition to originating the notion of “hurry sickness,” this study also coined the term “Type A,” which has since planted itself firmly and anxiously in our collective conscience.
This magnificently bland coinage, put forward by a pair of California cardiologists in 1959, struck a collective nerve and entered the language. It is a token of our confusion: are we victims or perpetrators of the crime of haste? Are we living at high speed with athleticism and vigor, or are we stricken by hurry sickness?
The cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, listed a set of personality traits which, they claimed, tend to go hand in hand with one another and also with heart disease. They described these traits rather unappealingly, as characteristics about and around the theme of impatience. Excessive competitiveness. Aggressiveness. “A harrying sense of time urgency.” The Type A idea emerged in technical papers and then formed the basis of a popular book and made its way into dictionaries.
The archetypal Type A was a person the researchers called “Paul,” whom they described unambiguously:
A very disproportionate amount of his emotional energy is consumed in struggling against the normal constraints of time. “How can I move faster, and do more and more things in less and less time?” is the question that never ceases to torment him. Paul hurries his thinking, his speech and his movements. He also strives to hurry the thinking, speech, and movements of those about him; they must communicate rapidly and relevantly if they wish to avoid creating impatience in him. Planes must arrive and depart precisely on time for Paul, cars ahead of him on the highway must maintain a speed he approves of, and there must never be a queue of persons standing between him and a bank clerk, a restaurant table, or the interior of a theater. In fact, he is infuriated whenever people talk slowly or circuitously, when planes are late, cars dawdle on the highway, and queues form.
The study ultimately didn’t live up to its hypothesis that a Type A personality predisposes to heart disease — the researchers failed to account for various confounds, including the facts that patients in Group A drank, smoked, and ate more than those in Group B. But what it didn’t prove in science it proved in society — the need for a term that confers validity about an experience so prevalent and so intimately familiar to so many. (In her beautiful essay on language and creativity, the poet Jane Hirshfield has written about how, through the language of poetic image, “something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed” until we begin to feel that without its existence “the world’s store of truth would be diminished.”) Gleick writes:
If the Type A phenomenon made for poor medical research, it stands nonetheless as a triumph of social criticism. Some of us yield more willingly to impatience than others, but on the whole Type A is who we are—not just the coronary-prone among us, but all of us, as a society and as an age. No wonder the concept has proven too rich a cultural totem to be dismissed. We understand it. We know it when we see it. Type A people walk fast and eat fast. They finish your sentences for you. They feel guilty about relaxing. They try to do two or more things at once…
Among the many aggravators of Type A-ness in modern life, elevators stand out. By its very nature, elevatoring — short-range vertical transportation, as the industry calls it — is a pressure-driven business. Although there are still places on earth where people live full lives without ever seeing an elevator, the Otis Elevator Company estimates that its cars raise and lower the equivalent of the planet’s whole population every nine days. This is a clientele that dislikes waiting.
Gleick cites a curious and revealing passage from a 1979 report by Otis researchers studying elevator behavior:
Waiting, some stand still, others pace, and another may make small gestures of impatience such as foot tapping, jiggling change in a pocket, scanning the walls and ceiling with apparent concentration… At intervals, nearly everyone regards the elevator location display above the doors by tipping their head slightly back and raising their eyes… Men, but hardly ever women, may rock gently back and forth…
The long silences, the almost library hush, that we can observe where people wait for elevators are not only what they seem… The longer the silence the more likely one or more of us will become slightly embarrassed… the more embarrassing and tense are the little interior dramas that we play out each within our own theater of projection…
The actual period of waiting that elapses before a particular group may feel that waiting has become a nearly unendurable torment will probably vary significantly with the composition of the group, the time of day, and the type of building in which they are traveling… The wait is hardly ever long, however much the subjective experience may stretch it out.
What makes the elevator so upsetting to the Type A person is that it forces upon us perpetually moving moderns the anxiety of stillness, a punishing counterpoint to the self-elected exhilaration of speed. An interesting, if discomfiting, thing to consider: At the time of Gleick’s writing, elevator riders tended to fill that anxious space of time with bodily fidgeting, occasional small talk, and no doubt large quantities of quiet inner rage; today, the average elevator is filled with people hunched over their devices, heads bent, looking like a congregation of mourners — an alarmingly apt image, for we are now irreversibly bereaved of that bygone era of innocent fidget-filled idleness, unburdened by the tyrannical impulse for productivity. We no longer allow ourselves boredom, that crucible of creativity, even in the elevator.
Building engineers have long tried to address the collective malady of elevator impatience — a problem only exacerbated as buildings grow taller and taller, requiring a greater number of elevators to prevent infuriating elevator traffic jams. For a while, a fanciful solution gained traction: A pressurized “sky lobby” — a transit point in a skyscraper, wherein an air lock repressurizes elevator passengers before they plunge into a rapid descent. But as abstract and at times illusory as time may seem, it grounds us mercilessly into the creaturely reality of our biology, which put an end to the sky lobby idea. Gleick writes:
One small problem resists solution. Evolution neglected to armor the human eardrum against the sudden change in air pressure that comes with a fall of hundreds of feet at high speed. Natural selection rarely had the opportunity to work with survivors of this experience, to fine-tune their eustachian tubes in preparain for vertical transport. So at mid-century, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high tower with 528 stories, helicopter landing pads, and quintuple-deck elevators running on atomic power, airline pilots instantly wrote to alert him to the impracticality. The age of high-altitude passenger aviation was just beginning, and the pilots knew that elevators descending thousands of feet within a minute or two would subject their passengers to severe inner-ear pain. Sure enough, decades later, the Sears Tower in Chicago had to slow its observation-deck elevators because at least one passenger had complained of a broken ear drum — an extreme manifestation of hurry sickness.
What remained was the low-tech solution of manipulating the psychology of human impatience, most palpably triggered by what engineers call “door dwell” — the amount of time it takes the elevator doors to automatically close after making a stop on a given floor, programmed to last anywhere between two and four seconds. There is, of course, a way to override the automatic door dwell and win back, as it were, some of those precious blinks: the “DOOR CLOSE” button — a Type A favorite and typically the most worn out one in elevators, for people press it compulsively and repeatedly despite the negligible time-saving benefits and the knowledge that pushing it three times in antsy succession is no more effective than pushing it once. Gleick considers the curious compulsion of poking this seductive yet temporally impotent button:
Although elevators leave the factory with all their functions ready to work, the manufacturers realize that building managers often choose to disable DOOR CLOSE. Buildings fear trapped limbs and lawsuits. Thus they turn their resident populations into subjects in a Pavlovian experiment in negative feedback. The subjects hunger for something even purer than food: speed.
How many times will you continue to press a button that does nothing? Do you press elevator call buttons that are already lighted — despite your suspicion that, once the button has been pressed, no amount of further attention will hasten the car’s arrival? Your suspicion is accurate. The computers could instruct elevators to give preference to floors with many calls. But elevator engineers know better than to provide any greater incentive than already exists for repeated pressing of the button. They remember Pavlov. They know what happens to those dogs.
“Before, every face, every place, every event, had been unique, seen only once and then lost forever among the changes of age, light, time. The past existed only in memory and interpretation, and the world beyond one’s own experience was mostly stories.”
By Maria Popova
The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky described the art of cinema as “sculpting in time,” asserting that people go to the movies because they long to experience “time lost or spent or not yet had.” A century earlier, the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (April 9, 1830–May 8, 1904) exposed the bedrock of time and devised the first chisel for its sculpting in his pioneering photographic studies of motion, which forever changed the modern world — not only by ushering in a technological revolution the effects of which permeate and even dictate our daily lives today, but also, given how bound up in space and time our thinking ego is, transforming our very consciousness. For the very first time, Muybridge’s motion studies captured what T.S. Eliot would later call “the still point of the turning world.”
Solnit frames the impact of the trailblazing experiments Muybridge conducted in the spring of 1872, when he first photographed a galloping horse:
[Muybridge] had captured aspects of motion whose speed had made them as invisible as the moons of Jupiter before the telescope, and he had found a way to set them back in motion. It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over. Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone’s before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther.
Technology and consciousness, of course, have always shaped one another, perhaps nowhere more so than in our experience of time — from the moment Galileo’s invention of the clock sparked modern timekeeping to the brutality with which social media timelines beleaguer us with a crushing sense of perpetual urgency. But the 1870s were a particularly fecund zeitgeist of technological transformation by Solnit’s perfect definition of technology as “a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.” She writes:
The experience of time was itself changing dramatically during Muybridge’s seventy-four years, hardly ever more dramatically than in the 1870s. In that decade the newly invented telephone and phonograph were added to photography, telegraphy, and the railroad as instruments for “annihilating time and space.”
The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it.
His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.
Shining a sidewise gleam at just how radically the givens we take for granted have changed since Muybridge’s time, Solnit writes of that era in which a man could shoot his wife’s lover and be acquitted for justifiable homicide:
In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California, he also became a father, a murderer, and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects.
In a testament to the notion that all creative work builds on what came before, Muybridge made significant improvements on the zoetrope — a rotating device, invented in 1834, which creates the illusion of motion by presenting a series of spinning images through a slot. But alongside the practical improvement upon existing technologies, he also built upon larger cultural leaps — most significantly, the rise of the railroads, which compressed space and time unlike anything ever had.
In 1872, the railroad magnate Leland Stanford — who would later co-found Stanford University with his wife, Jane — commissioned Muybridge to study the gaits of galloping and trotting horses in order to determine whether all four feet lifted off the ground at once at any point. Since horses gallop at a speed that outpaces the perception of the human eye, this was impossible to discern without freezing motion into a still image. So began Muybridge’s transformation of time.
With her penchant for cultural history laced with subtle, perfectly placed political commentary, Solnit traces the common root of Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Muybridge:
Perhaps because California has no past — no past, at least, that it is willing to remember — it has always been peculiarly adept at trailblazing the future. We live in the future launched there.
If one wanted to find an absolute beginning point, a creation story, for California’s two greatest transformations of the world, these experiments with horse and camera would be it. Out of these first lost snapshots eventually came a world-changing industry, and out of the many places where movies are made, one particular place: Hollywood. The man who owned the horse and sponsored the project believed in the union of science and business and founded the university that much later generated another industry identified, like Hollywood, by its central place: Silicon Valley.
It would be impossible to grasp the profound influence Muybridge and his legacy had on culture without understanding how dramatically different the world he was born into was from the one he left. Solnit paints the technological backdrop of his childhood:
Pigeons were the fastest communications technology; horses were the fastest transportation technology; the barges moved at the speed of the river or the pace of the horses that pulled them along the canals. Nature itself was the limit of speed: humans could only harness water, wind, birds, beasts. Born into this almost medievally slow world, the impatient, ambitious, inventive Muybridge would leave it and link himself instead to the fastest and newest technologies of the day.
The first passenger railroad opened on September 15, 1830 — mere months after Muybridge’s birth. Like any technological bubble, the spread of this novelty brought with it an arsenal of stock vocabulary. The notion of “annihilating time and space” became one of the era’s most used, then invariably overused, catchphrases. (In a way, clichés themselves — phrases to which we turn for cognitive convenience, out of a certain impatience with language — are another manifestation of our defiant relationship to time.) Applied first to the railways, the phrase soon spread to the various technological advancements that radiated, directly or indirectly, from them. Solnit writes:
“Annihilating time and space” is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome. Annihilating time and space most directly means accelerating communications and transportation. The domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel sped up the rate and volume of transit; the invention of writing made it possible for stories to reach farther across time and space than their tellers and stay more stable than memory; and new communications, reproduction, and transportation technologies only continue the process. What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.
The devices for such annihilation poured forth faster and faster, as though inventiveness and impatience had sped and multiplied too.
But perhaps the most significant impact of the railroads, Solnit argues, was that they began standardizing human experience as goods, people, and their values traveled faster and farther than ever before. In contracting the world, the railways began to homogenize it. And just as society was adjusting to this new mode of relating to itself, another transformative invention bookended the decade: On January 7, 1839, the French artist Louis Daguerre debuted what he called daguerreotypy — a pioneering imaging method that catalyzed the dawn of photography.
With an eye to the era’s European and American empiricism, animated by a “restlessness that regarded the unknown as a challenge rather than a danger,” Solnit writes:
Photography may have been its most paradoxical invention: a technological breakthrough for holding onto the past, a technology always rushing forward, always looking backward.
Photography was a profound transformation of the world it entered. Before, every face, every place, every event, had been unique, seen only once and then lost forever among the changes of age, light, time. The past existed only in memory and interpretation, and the world beyond one’s own experience was mostly stories… [Now,] every photograph was a moment snatched from the river of time.
The final invention in the decades’s trifecta of technological transformation was the telegraph. Together, these three developments — photography, the railroads, and the telegraph — marked the beginning of our modern flight from presence, which would become the seedbed of our unhappiness over the century that followed. By chance, Muybridge came into the world at the pinnacle of this transformation; by choice, he became instrumental in guiding its course and, in effect, shaping modernity.
Before the new technologies and ideas, time was a river in which human beings were immersed, moving steadily on the current, never faster than the speeds of nature — of currents, of wind, of muscles. Trains liberated them from the flow of the river, or isolated them from it. Photography appears on this scene as though someone had found a way to freeze the water of passing time; appearances that were once as fluid as water running through one’s fingers became solid objects… Appearances were permanent, information was instantaneous, travel exceeded the fastest speed of bird, beast, and man. It was no longer a natural world in the sense it always had been, and human beings were no longer contained within nature.
Time itself had been of a different texture, a different pace, in the world Muybridge was born into. It had not yet become a scarce commodity to be measured out in ever smaller increments as clocks acquired second hands, as watches became more affordable mass-market commodities, as exacting schedules began to intrude into more and more activities. Only prayer had been precisely scheduled in the old society, and church bells had been the primary source of time measurement.
Simone Weil once defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention,” and perhaps the commodification of time that started in the 1830s was the beginning of the end of our capacity for such attention; perhaps Muybridge was the horseman of our attentional apocalypse.
Solnit considers the magnitude of his ultimate impact on our experience of time:
In the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse. With the motion studies that resulted it was as though he were returning bodies themselves to those who craved them — not bodies as they might daily be experienced, bodies as sensations of gravity, fatigue, strength, pleasure, but bodies become weightless images, bodies dissected and reconstructed by light and machine and fantasy.
What they had lost was solid; what they gained was made out of air. That exotic new world of images speeding by would become the true home of those who spent their Saturdays watching images beamed across the darkness of the movie theater, then their evenings watching images beamed through the atmosphere and brought home into a box like a camera obscura or a crystal ball, then their waking hours surfing the Internet wired like the old telegraph system. Muybridge was a doorway, a pivot between that old world and ours, and to follow him is to follow the choices that got us here.