A BATTLE is brewing over the politics of time. The new temporal confrontation directly parallels the recent controversy between the belief that "bigger is better" and the countervailing idea that "small is beautiful." Now, the emerging temporal conflict pits the notion that "faster is better" against the idea that "slow is humane."

On the "faster-is-better" side is the demand for increased efficiency and performance, a sense of time paced to the artificial tempo of automated electronic machinery and computerized information-processing. On the other side is a vision of life more attuned to the biological and physical rhythms of the natural world. "Slow-is-humane" proponents tend to agree with historian Will Durant: "No man in a hurry is quite civilized." Whereas both time orientations are equally alluring, in the final analysis they are utterly incompatible.

The Age of Speed

Our greatly accelerated time orientation has arrived only very recently in the history of human development: Napoleon's troops traveled at the same speed as those of Alexander the Great. It is barely 200 years since the steam engine -- oblivious to hour or season -- began imposing its unnatural rhythm on society. In 1825 the railroad started to regulate the schedule of daily life, abetted by the teletype, telephone and daily newspaper. Natural time was further subverted in 1809 with the introduction of the gaslight in London, extending day into night. Seventy years later came the electric light. Historian Rayner Banham called it "the greatest environmental revolution in human history since the domestication of fire."Today we are increasingly using electricityto "colonize" the night with 24-hour public and commercial facilities.

It is ironic that in a culture so committed to saving time we feel increasingly deprived of the very thing we value. Despite our alleged efficiency, we seem to have less time for ourselves and far less time for each other.

And now we are faced with a technology that threatens to accelerate our sense of time beyond anything experienced before: the computer. It works in a time frame in which the nanosecond -- a billionth of a second -- is the primary measurement. Though it is possible to conceive of an interval that brief, and even to manipulate time at that speed, it is not possible to experience it. Never before has time been organized at a speed beyond the realm of consciousness, and already it is having a profound effect on society.

A 1981 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reports that "clerical workers who use computers suffer higher levels of stress than any other occupational group -- including air traffic controllers." Secretaries who once averaged 30,000 keystrokes an hour are now expected to perform 80,000. Brokerage houses count on employes to handle a call every minute and a half. Architects using computer-aided design are asked for productivity increases as high as 1800 percent, at crippling expense to creativity.

Hundred of thousands of workers now find their jobs routinely monitored to speed up performance. In a recent study of one system -- designed so that if the operator does not respond to the data on the screen within 17 seconds, it disappears -- medical researchers found that operators exhibit increasing stress as the time approaches for the image to disappear: "From the 11th second they begin to perspire, then the heart rate goes up. Consequently they experience enormous fatigue." Nor are the effects limited to offices. Hundreds of thousands of workers, such as supermarket cashiers operating bar-code readers, find their work-product recorded and their anxiety increased by electronic equipment.

Moreover, we are becoming addicted to ever shorter time intervals between events. "Teachers talk slower than Atari," complains a 9-year-old boy, and "sometimes they make me angry. I think, 'Come on, I want to get back to Atari. It tells me things faster than you do.' " The "computer compulsive" personality is becoming familiar. According to Craig Brod, one of the growing number of psychologists specializing in computer-related distress, "those who live with computer workers invariably complain that disputes over time are a major source of friction."

Even human speech has become too slow. Sony, Panasonic and other companies are now marketing variable-speech-control cassette tape recorders equipped with a special "speech-compression" chip. That mechanism speeds up the playback motor while clipping off tiny audio fragments -- snipping about 10 milliseconds off each sound. The remaining sounds are electronically stretched, producing a fast-paced narrative without the high pitch that results from playing a normal tape at increased speed. As a result, a 60-minute cassette can be listened to in half an hour. According to industry sources, about a million people now "speed listen," and millions more soon will as the compression chip makes its way into schoolrooms, offices and homes.

"Nature barely moves at all" in comparison to the computer time world, writes sociologist Jerry Mander. "It takes an extreme degree of calm to perceive things happening in nature, and I suspect we may be producing a generation of people too sped-up to attune themselves to slower natural rhythms."

The Biology of Time

Until the modern era, every concept of time acknowledged an intimate relationship between the rhythms of social life and the rhythms of the earth's ecosystems. It is impossible to grasp the full extent of our temporal alienation in the new nanosecond culture without first examining the age-old biological rhythms at the very core of our existence.

Thanks to a relatively new discipline called chronobiology, researchers are discovering that all living things are composed of myriad internal biological clocks entrained to work in precise coordination with the rhythms of the external physical world.

Chronobiology began inauspiciously in 1906, when a Swiss doctor named Forel, fond of breakfasting on his terrace, observed that bees arrived at his table at precisely the same time each morning -- even after he had moved his meal inside. A subsequent series of landmark experiments determined that the temporal precision of bees' nectar-collecting activities remained unchanged even when they were moved to a cellar or salt mine. And when scientists tried to derange the insects' biological clocks by flying them from Paris to New York, the bees continued to perform on schedule according to Paris time.

Nature provides countless examples of biological clocks timed to environmental and planetary rhythms. The famed Capistrano swallows of California, for example, fly thousands of miles south for the winter, yet return every spring precisely on March 19. They have been a day late only twice in 200 years. The palolo worm reproduces only during the neap tides of the last quarter-moon in October and November. Experimenters put a Rocky Mountain ground squirrel in a small windowless room during the summer, provided food and water, and set the temperature at the freezing point. From August to October, the squirrel ate normally and maintained regular body temperataure. In October, however, it quit eating and drinking and began to hibernate -- just as if it had been outdoors in its natural habitat.

The most important biological rhythms are circadian (from the Latin for "around the day") which lie at the very core of our beings. Researchers at Johns Hopkins tried to break the 24-hour rhythms of rats by injecting them with drugs, shocking them with electricity, freezing them, stopping their heartbeats, blinding them and even removing whole sections of their brains -- all to no avail. The rats continued to follow their 24-hour activity cycle. The more deeply scientists have delved into the circadian rhythms of numerous organisms, the more profoundly imbedded they appear. So basic is this metabolic orientation to all plants and animals, writes psychologist John E. Orme, that "the rhythm is not a property of any particular organ or biological clock. The whole organism, in a sense, is the clock."

As for humans, millions of us have become familiar with the idea of biological clocks as a result of exposure to jet lag and shift work. In both, the body's internal rhythms are jolted out of synchronization by radical temporal changes. So far, science has uncovered only a fraction of the many rhythms that permeate our physiology. But we are learning more every year. We now know that regardless of how much liquid we consume at particular times during the day, urine flow follows a circadian rhythm, declining during the nighttime hours. We know that potassium excretion peaks between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. We know that the liver processes its glycogen reserves according to a dependable rhythm beginning by late afternoon and ending between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m.

Some researchers believe that a correlation exits between an individual's built-in temperature cycle and whether he or she is a "morning" or "night" person. Lawrence Monroe at the University of Chicago found that individuals whose body temperature rises to normal upon wakening are apt to be very alert in their early waking hours while those whose temperatures do not rise to normal until well into the day are generally more alert and sensitive to their surroundings as evening approaches. In addition, performance and achievement levels vary during the day, depending partly on each individual's temperature rhythm. At the National Medical Research Laboratories in Cambridge, England, Robert Wilkinson and Peter Colquhoun found that peak performance on tests correlated with peak body temperature during the day and low performance accompanied the lowest body temperature during the day. (Those temperature cycles, in turn, may influence our perception of duration. Evidence suggests that time seems to move more slowly as temperature decreases, and to speed up dramatically with a fever.)

The growing interest in biological clocks has sparked a host of new concerns within the medical community, not the least of which has been a growing debate over the proper time to administer drugs. A new field known as chronopharmacology has emerged virtually overnight. Many scientists have come to believe that the time of day a drug is administered may be as critical as the kind of drug being used. At the University of Arkansas, Lawrence E. Sheving injected 300 mice with leukemic cells. He then divided the mice into 12 groups and administered chemotherapy to each group at a different time of day. Over half of the mice that received the treatment at 5:00 a.m. were cured, whereas only 16 percent of those receiving the same treatment at 8:00 a.m. survived.

Anger and anxiety can vary considerably during the day. Both emotions require extra doses of adrenaline; and adrenaline, like other biochemical agents, adheres to a changing secretion pattern over a 24-hour cycle. It is likely, then, that the expression of anger and anxiety will be greater or lesser at given periods of the day, irrespective of the object that triggers the emotion.

Emotions can also vary with daylight. According to studies at the National Institutes of Mental Health, the brain measures the length of every day and then uses that information to regulate the secretion of specific brain chemicals that affect mood and behavior. During the shorter days of the year, the pineal gland secretes more melatonin, which brings on depression in some subjects. As the days lengthen toward spring, the brain produces less. By exposing severely depressed patients to massive doses of artificial light, NIMH scientists were able to shift mood dramatically.

Researchers such as New York psychiatrist Joost Meerloo have even begun to suspect that a relationship exists between biological clocks and the statistical fact that most births and deaths occur in the early morning hours, that the peak number of deaths from arteriosclerosis occur in January, and that most suicides occur in May and June.

Setting the Clock Ahead

We live in two time worlds simultaneously -- the biological one we inherit and the social one we learn. Until very recently in human history, the two were closely attuned. But now, the time demands of the modern age are increasingly taxing the biological rhythms of the planet. The growing conflict between those who favor a hyper-efficient, simulated-time world and those who advocate a new ecological time vision is setting the stage for an historic struggle. The choice is ours. The time is now.