Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History

by Jeremy Rifkin

(Henry Holt, 1987), 263 pp., $18.95

"The first grand discovery," as former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin has written, "was time." Doubtless because it is so familiar to Americans, we tend to remain ignorant of the specialness of the western sense of time and its historical development.

In his ambitious new work, "Time Wars," Jeremy Rifkin offers a diagnosis of the tyranny of time in what he calls the most critical revolution -- the computer revolution -- in which we are now enveloped.

"We are entering a new temporal world," Rifkin writes, "where time is segmented into nanoseconds, the future is programed in advance, nature is reconceived as bits of coded information and paradise is viewed as a fully simulated, artificial environment."

It's clear that a massive change has occurred in the temporal alertness of our culture. Time is no longer considered to be a large, warm bath in which we take our ease but rather a dangerous, even menacing force against which humankind is pitted in an inexorable contest. Time is the agent of a reality that can destroy the unprepared. When it was uttered, Rudyard Kipling's exhortation to "Fill the unforgiving minute / With 60 seconds' worth of distance run" made little sense to much of the world outside of northwestern Europe and America.

Today, however, the knowledge of time in infinitely smaller components can make it seem quite normal for a computer engineer to complain of a process being "too slow" if it takes only nine nanoseconds -- a span perceived as instantaneous in human terms.

The Renaissance was the period of our cultural past in which the modern western sense of time received its essential and enduring shape. In 16th century France, Rabelais -- inspired by the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch -- had his humanistic teachers so design a schedule of education "that not one hour of the day was lost." It was another follower of Petrarch's who first recommended that a clock be installed in every library so that students would not fritter time away but use it constructively. Time for reflection, or idleness, came to be seen as almost profane.

This great contest of the human spirit versus time forms the principle of survival in Shakespeare's history plays, where a Richard II could desolately realize, "I have wasted time, and now doth time waste me."

Of course, these developments did not go unchallenged. From the earliest times, western writers and intellectuals expressed their reservations about militant temporal management. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French essayist, responded to this energized sense of life with down-to-earth bluntness. "Next," he declared, "they will want us to go to the bathroom on the run" -- to use a printable translation of a much more pungent term.

Wordsworth refused cooperation with a utopian educational scheme, one that would "guarantee" the creation of geniuses by making use of all wasted moments. He inclined more toward a wise passiveness and the vagrant unpredictability of nature and human genius.

In modern times, opposition to the regime of time becomes grimmer and more desperate as its hold becomes more compelling and encompassing. In fact, to be an active, thinking member of western society since the Renaissance means that one is necessarily placed in a position of response to the motor engine of our culture -- the time world, the clock world, the industrial world and the computer world -- the four, so to speak, time zones that have marked our development.

Rifkin has moved beyond the development of clock culture and the industrial revolution to a critical analysis of the social and personal implications of computers. Some question can be raised, however, whether the computer revolution represents -- as Rifkin maintains -- a radical departure from the previous "time zones" or a further extension of their qualities.

If we emphasize the increased separation between man and the rhythms of nature, then it clearly is not a radical departure. But if we look, as Rifkin does in his two best chapters, "The Vision of Simulated Worlds" and "Time Pyramids and Time Ghettoes" to the new construction of a synthetic reality -- such as the synthetic instruments of Wall Street brokers, where trading strategies are disassociated from underlying portfolio values -- then we see that there is indeed something new afoot.

The Renaissance discovery of time as a measurable quantity, a meaningful quality in human life, was tied to the apprehension of an inexorable reality. The new computer revolution seems to disassociate human activity from that reality.

In this regard, some of Rifkin's solutions seem inappropriate to the problem he describes. Far more important, to counteract the sense of dispersion and distraction, would be to encourage in students the capacity to engage in fruitful labor for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Or, to counteract the sense of historical isolation, encourage a sense of history -- not of the pastness of things but of the connectedness of things. For this, of course, two qualities must be nurtured: intellect and the assurance that to know is to understand.

In this sense, Rifkin's book itself is a strong contribution, since it shows the continued unifying presence in western thought of a concept that began to take hold more than 600 years ago.

Ricardo J. Quinones, Phd, is director of the Center for Humanistic Studies, Claremont-McKenna Collge, Claremont, Calif.