5: The Clocks Ahead Will Have Our Own Faces

Unrooted living is spawning the timeless schedule--with restaurants simultaneously serving breakfast cereal and martinis because people's stomachs are running on different internal clocks

Time was, people rose with the sun. And they set with it, too. Nobody cared if it was sunny somewhere else. Voices didn't carry across the planet. Time was local: time to milk the cows, time to get in the corn, time to sit and rest. World time zones were ordained in 1884 but didn't catch on until right before World War I. Fifty years ago, few even imagined night skiing.

Increasingly, though, the andante beat of time will be juked and jazzed. The reliable rhythms of days and seasons will yield to the Constant Now.

The changes have already begun. Commerce and communications never cease. On cable-TV news shows, things happen at "half past the hour." You don't ask which hour, because local time is no longer the meaningful marker. Great events unfold in the electronic ether.

In the U.S., fewer than one-third of Americans now have a workweek of standard 9-to-5 days, and that share is shrinking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women and minorities are the most likely to work late shifts or irregular hours--as cashiers, clerks, or orderlies. White-collar workers are doing more work at home, inviting the urgency of the business world into what was once a refuge. Wall Street, for instance, is becoming a red-eye profession as round-the-clock markets make "closing prices" an obsolete concept. Unrooted living is spawning the timeless schedule--with restaurants simultaneously serving breakfast cereal and martinis because different people's stomachs are running on different internal clocks.

The question is, how will all this timeshifting affect people's lives in the next 100 years? The Internet never sleeps, but people do. They must. By loosening the constraint of time, are we liberating ourselves--or submitting to a kind of 21st century enslavement? As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling points out, "3 a.m. is still the midnight of the human soul. And there are metabolic problems like seasonal affective disorder if you never see daylight."

On the good side, allowing people to live by their own clocks is profoundly democratic. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, doesn't even trouble its corporate guests to acknowledge local time. A "one-night stay" consists of any 24-hour span of the guest's choice. The program has already been extended to other properties in Asia, where flights often come and go at odd hours.

Quite a convenience. Yet, the death of shared daily routines will shake society to its core. A Los Angeles resident who routinely gets up in the middle of the night to telephone Tel Aviv is living in L.A. in body only. If your neighbors are on different clocks from yours, then who will be part of your community? Perhaps the people on your E-mail list. Perhaps no one.

To see where this is headed, take the trends that killed Sunday store-closings--demand for convenience, odd work hours--and move them into warp speed. Almost every service, from lawyers to marriage counselors to golf pros, will operate 24 hours or risk death. Work will start at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., depending on your preference. What will matter is what's delivered, not when it's done. Units of time will become fungible, like dollar bills: each moment fully interchangeable with each other moment.

Timelessness can become a kind of tyranny. Remember when the image of a portable computer at the beach signaled freedom? Now, it's a sign that the office never goes away. People bring their cell phones into concert halls and churches because, to them, rudeness is a lesser sin than missing an important call.

The problem comes down to movement vs. meaning. Longer trading hours, for instance, will mean more trades--but not necessarily better trades. James C. Ackerman, president of online brokerage Sloan Securities Corp., complains that 24-hour trading "won't give anybody time to sit and breathe and think." Instant access to information at all hours of the day could fill elevators and waiting rooms with "newszak" that numbs the brain. Increased efficiency is supposed to mean doing more things in the same time, not the same thing in less time. "Humans have not evolved to move at supersonic speeds," says Howard Rheingold, a West Coast commentator on technology.

A reaction is already building. Stewart Brand, environmental pundit and author of the Whole Earth Catalog, is leading a project to create a giant clock that will run without winding for 10,000 years, ticking once a year. He hopes "The Clock of the Long Now," as he calls it in a new book (review, in Books), will remind people of the planet's continuity and their responsibility for it. In Silicon Valley, birthplace of hyperspeed "Internet time," executives such as Amazon.com's Jeffrey P. Bezos and Netscape Communications Corp. co-founder Marc Andreessen have taken to bragging about how much sleep they get. For them, the ultimate status symbol is the power to live by nature's clock rather than the Net's.

There is no going back to the agrarian past, of course. But some people will learn to dip in and out of the 24-hour flow, living by routines that suit them rather than chasing after a sun that never sets. Elizabeth DeMotte is one. As a Singapore-based employee of America's Ritz-Carlton Co., DeMotte says she gets her work done in "a very natural ebb and flow" over any 24-hour period. "I think a contemporary global executive who tries to conform to traditional ideas of workdays and time off is not only ineffective, but burning the candle at both ends," she says. Interesting--it was the candle, illuminating the night, that started us down this road.