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In hock to the clock: a call for `slow is beautiful'

AMERICANS may not be so good at saving money. But they are world beaters when it comes to trying to save time. From microwave ovens to stay-pressed pants, you'd think we'd have more time than we knew what to do with. Yet the more we try to save time, the less we seem to have.

``Those who have the most time- and labor-saving technologies feel they have the least time of anybody,'' author Jeremy Rifkin observed in an interview earlier this summer.

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Where does it all go? Is it possible that, trying so resolutely to save time, Americans simply bring the ``future'' upon themselves more rapidly, like those video games in which the road rushes in upon the driver at ever-increasing speeds?

Mr. Rifkin thinks so. In his new book, ``Time Wars,'' he predicts that the resulting unease will soon find expression in the political arena. Until now, people have experienced loss of time as a vague personal discontent, for which they have blamed their own inability to cope. A large industry has arisen, offering everything from executive time-management seminars to Valium. ``Stress'' is rivaling fat as the pet affliction of the supermarket tabloids.

But Rifkin says he thinks the computer is going to force the issue out into the open, and that the result will be a new politics of time. In the 1960s and '70s, he observes, politics revolved largely around issues of spatial scale. The right called for less central government, the left for less corporate economic power. ``Small Is Beautiful,'' the book by British economist E.F. Schumacher, captured the imagination of the times.

The 1990s, Rifkin says, will have a new banner: ``Slow Is Humane,'' as Ivan Illich, the social critic, put it.

Jeremy Rifkin is best known as the man who has almost single-handedly slowed the pace of genetic engineering and kindred forms of biological manipulation in the United States. Working out of his tiny Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, he brought the lawsuit that has stalled the Army's new biological testing facility in Dugway, Utah. Recently, he organized the coalition behind proposed legislation that would impose a two-year moratorium on the patenting of life forms such as commercial stock animals.

Rifkin is a canny publicist with a gift for the pungent phrase. (``Wombs will become rentable,'' he says of the Baby M surrogate-motherhood decision in New Jersey.) Some scientists accuse him of shooting from the lip. His defenders applaud him for raising ethical questions many researchers would ignore.

Rifkin's basic point in ``Time Wars'' is that time isn't a thing but a concept, and that this concept has always been a mirror of the political and economic arrangements of the day.

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In the Middle Ages, for example, there was little need for a structured sense of time. The seasons set the tempo for agriculture. Craftsmen worked by the task, not the hour. It was the Benedictine monks who revived the Roman idea of the ``hour'' to order monastery life. They also invented that seminal management tool, the clock. Louis Mumford, the social historian, considered the clock the ``key machine of the modern age,'' because it ``dissociated time from human events'' and made it appear an independent and self-governing force.

The next step was to transfer time management from the monastery to the factory. The early clocks had no dials, therefore no minutes and seconds. These came in the early 1700s, bringing with them new forms of ``temporal regimentation'' in the workplace and home. ``The factory was the first place that the common man and woman were exposed to the schedule,'' Rifkin writes, and they weren't always grateful for the imposition.

There were intense political struggles over the emerging time-consciousness, and probably the most significant was between the church and the burgeoning merchant class. The issue was usury - charging interest for money. Scripture prohibited it; usury amounted to ``selling time, which does not belong to [man],'' but to God, as Rifkin quotes one early authority. Yet the merchants couldn't do without it. The merchants won, just as the factory owners won a similar struggle with the church over the traditional calendar of religious observance which interfered with the production schedule.

It wasn't just the sense of time that was changing. People were recasting their notions of the universe and even themselves in the image of their concept of time. Back in the pre-clock era, for example, when time was governed by tasks, God was a ``craftsman'' and the universe his ``handiwork.'' After clocks came in, 18th-century thinkers such as Sir Isaac Newton and Adam Smith wrote this God out of the intellectual universe, and replaced Him with the idea of a ``clockwork'' mechanism that supposedly governed things physical and economic.``The new clock culture became imprisoned in its own tautological jail cell,'' Rifkin writes.

The latest image in this line of development, he says, is the ``information'' universe, seen in the likeness of the computer. Thus a zoologist named William Thorpe calls physical life ``self-programmed activity.'' And the same image creeps into the way people talk about their afflictions. Way back in the industrial age - 15 years or so ago - people spoke of having a ``nervous breakdown,'' a mechanical image. Now they think of themselves as ``burning out,'' an image drawn from electronic circuitry.

Rifkin says computers will touch off a new political struggle over time. Computers aren't just tools; they are a ``time orientation,'' he says. Their electronic pulsebeat is the ``nanosecond,'' which is one-billionth of a second - less than a human can consciously experience. ``This marks a radical turning point in the way human beings relate to time,'' he writes. ``Never before has time been organized at a speed beyond the realm of consciousness.''

Just as the clock separated time from human events, the nanosecond separates it from human perception. Rifkin spins out the implications at several levels.

The first and most obvious is the way the computer hastens the flow of work and events. Those on front lines, of course, are data-entry workers, supermarket checkout clerks, and the like who now toil to the rhythm of the nanosecond. The average secretary used to do 30,000 keystrokes an hour, for example; for the average VDT operator, the number today is 80,000.

It's almost a Charlie Chaplin sight gag, Rifkin observes. Enabling people to cope with more details, the computer generates more details to be coped with. And it makes people do so in a greater rush. ``The tool that was designed to allow us to catch up accelerates the flow of activity in the society, [thus] requiring us to try to catch up even quicker.''

The real culprit behind the self-defeating quest for nanosecond speed, Rifkin argues, is the prevailing concept of ``efficiency.'' The idea that everything should be done as quickly as possible, that work is of value only for how much it produces, is perhaps the one modern value that practically nobody questions. Like environmental pollution, it ``crosses socialist and capitalist boundaries,'' he says. He calls it ``an addiction ... a time drug.'' Once a society has bought into the promise, ``there is never an end to wanting to be more efficient.''

Computers, he thinks, will make us confront the issue by pushing it to its logical extreme. He cites a computer-operated machine-tool factory at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Japan, that operates 24 hours a day under the direction of a single individual. ``Here's a plant where nobody participates in the unfolding of their own future,'' Rifkin says, in a way that suggests a convergence between the ``participatory democracy'' of the '60s and the rugged individualism of a Reagan campaign speech. ``The ultimate efficiency would require no energy and labor. We'd become totally uninvolved, detached, and not relevant to participate in our own decisions.''

In his previous books, Rifkin has taken pains to connect today's environmental concerns to traditional Judeo-Christian teachings and values. In ``Time Wars,'' however, he deals with the church primarily as a political institution. Of the teachings, he presents the stereotyped view: that earthly time was deemed a ``necessary evil'' in preparation for ``the eternal life that awaited after death.''

Yet, as Maurice Nicoll discusses in his book ``Living Time,'' the ancients foresaw long ago the time trap into which people have fallen today.

Lacking an anchor either in Christian spirituality or in physics - strangely, there is no mention of Einstein and relativity - Rifkin is left with ``earth rhythms'' and ``biorhythms'' as the moral touchstones and basic reality that the push to nanoseconds violates.

Rifkin regrets the oversight. He insists, moreover, that he is not suggesting a return to the natural biorhythms of the ox-drawn plow. Rather, he says, we need a better way to measure productivity. He cites as an example the Washington Cathedral, on which stone-cutters have been working for a hundred years.

To most economists, this would be hilariously inefficient. But today's glass-walled office buildings last 20 or 30 years, if that, while the cathedral will last for over a thousand. ``It depends on your time values,'' Rifkin says. ``If we measure productivity in terms of sustainability, then the Washington Cathedral is more productive.''

Rifkin says he thinks the time revolt will appear first among young people. This may seem wishful thinking to anyone who has watched a teen-ager sit spellbound by the pulsing nanoseconds of a personal computer. But Rifkin is hopeful. Where the '60s generation sought participation in democracy, the '90s generation will demand participation in time. ``They're going to want more say over the time constraints that run their lives,'' he says.