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Public Time and Private Time in August

THAT August is a slow time in the news business is one of those truisms that isn't necessarily so. It's hard to imagine that just the other week, George Bush showed up for church at his vacation hometown of Kennebunkport, Maine, in white socks and athletic shoes, and it made the national wires.But the Gorbachev ouster is only the latest in a series of very big stories to have broken in August. World War I began with the "guns of August" in 1914. A quarter century later, it was in August that Hitler gathered his troops for the invasion of Poland. The Berlin Wall went up in the small hours of a Sunday in August of 1961. And of course it was just last August that the West awoke from a sticky, fitful summer sleep to discover that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. These episodes signal a need, even through the vacation days of summer, for a certain alertness - on the part of public officials and of private citizens trying to manage their lives. Certain common threads are often found running through the big stories of August. There is the phenomenon of the junior minister left in charge debating whether to call the boss on vacation on the Riviera, on Cape Cod, or wherever. Messages may be missed or worse, may be received but not fully registered. Officials may try to make, over scratchy telephone connections to remote locations, the kinds of decisions best made in person, with the whole relevant group in attendance, in a physical environment tha t provides appropriate support. As we come and go on vacations and dutifully hand off contact telephone numbers and itineraries, pack up the portable phone or the laptop computer, and record a new announcement on the answering machine to cover our absence, we should remember the limits of all these marvelous mechanisms for being in touch. The next best thing to being there can be a very poor second indeed. The fiber-optic cables that carry zillions of points of data can still be overloaded by the weight of an emotionally charged conver sation. These limitations of the electronic loop are particularly noticeable during August. Vacation mode and work mode coexist a little less easily when sunshine beckons and the children are out of school. What scholar Stephen Kern has called "public time" and "private time" are a little harder to mesh. His 1983 book, "The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918," an intriguing interdisciplinary study, describes how the technological advances of a century ago - railroads, standard time, telegraphy, and photography - fundamentally altered ideas of time, space, speed, distance, form, and control. Standard time brought heightened expectations of punctuality in public forums. But standard time also sparked an explosion of thinking about how fluid and variable private time, as experienced by individual human beings, can be. Einstein challenged the irreversibility of public time. Meanwhile, French philosopher Henri Bergson and others "came to question whether the fixed and spatially represented public time was really time at all or some metaphysical interloper from the realm of space," as Kern puts it. Even the syncopated, ragged rhythms of ragtime music, which was first heard around the turn of the century, he identifies as a sign of public time under stress - literally, time in tatters. An intriguing chapter of the Kern book is called "The Temporality of the July Crisis." It details the weeks between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 and the actual outbreak of war in August. He makes a persuasive case that the different European leaders felt pressured by the availability of telegraphy to communicate in technological, public time over wires what they should have communicated in person, face to face, in a more human time frame. After all, he notes, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas were kinsmen. "Throughout the crisis there was not just one new faster speed for everyone to adjust to, but a series of new and variable paces that supercharged the masses, confused the diplomats, and unnerved the generals." And so the soldiers of World War I marched off to battle - in ragtime.

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