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Counting The Minutes: Perceptions Of Time In A Quantified Life

Sari Boren: "If we could know how much time we have left, how would we use it, and how would that change our perception of time?" (dave/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Sari Boren: "If we could know how much time we have left, how would we use it, and how would that change our perception of time?" (dave/flickr)

We live in the age of personal data. Smart device apps in increasing varieties give us the ability to measure everything from steps and stairs taken to sleep patterns and calories consumed. By collecting and analyzing our personal data, the thinking goes, not only can we improve our lives, we can extend them.

Maybe. But is a quantified life a better one? What if an actuarial grim reaper could pinpoint the very moment of our impending demise? If we could know how much time we have left, how would we use it, and how would that change our perception of time?

By collecting and analyzing our personal data, the thinking goes, not only can we improve our lives, we can extend them.

Apps that purport to count backwards from the end of our lives are already available. Exitus, a so-called “death clock” app for iPhones and iPads, “makes you feel how long or short your time left is,” according to the company. So does Tikker, which is either a “death watch” or a “happiness watch,” depending on how you look at it. And that’s the point: Tikker counts down the time to its owner’s death in order to remind that person of the preciousness of time. The company roughly calculates the life expectancy of each customer based on reported age, gender, medical history and lifestyle habits, and then starts the Tikker’s macabre back-timing.

But will the seconds of my life flying off my wrist nudge me toward greater productivity, or toward idle rose-smelling? If time is measured and finite, would I do better to squeeze in a gym workout in the hope of forestalling the inevitable, or, as I’m more inclined, to linger on a park bench with a good book and the company of passing dogs?

Tikker's "make every second count" philosophy centers on the belief that if we are aware of our expiration date, we will better use and enjoy the time we have now. “Next time you're bored, look at your wrist and realize that this is the first and last time in your life that these seconds pass. Don't let them down,” the company’s promotional copy states. This jolly threat has the reverse effect on me, making me feel that boredom might be preferable to the anxiety-inducing act of watching sand run through the hourglass of my life.

It’s when I’m fully present in the best moments of my life, whether it’s five minutes or five hours, that I never look at my watch.

The value of our lives can’t be measured in equal increments of time. And anyway, it’s not about time, per se, but about our perception of it. The hours flying by during dinner with friends, say, or an excruciating three-minute-set of push-ups count differently to us. Any insomniac can tell you that the approaching dawn, just hours away, can feel as distant and impossible to reach as rowing to the shores of a faraway continent.

If the last moment of my life is anyone’s guess, I will squander time. I do it every day. I don’t want to gulp the glass of chocolate milk with an eye toward the bottom. For me, the drink is not more pleasurable if I know it’s going to end. The pleasure is in the tasting, in the momentary illusion of abundance, not in the knowledge of scarcity and the impending empty glass. It’s when I’m fully present in the best moments of my life, whether it’s five minutes or five hours, that I never look at my watch.


Related:

Sari Boren Cognoscenti contributor
Sari Boren is a writer, instructional designer, and a museum exhibit developer who has helped create dozens of museum exhibits around the country.

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