It is worth looking back a couple of generations for an example of how changes in the human perception of time and the uses to which time is supposed to be put have been received by others. The classic American silent film “Modern Times” captures some of the distress that people in another era experienced as they struggled to make sense of how time was changing around them.
The film opens with the brazen symbolism of a shot of sheep being driven to slaughter dissolving into men pouring out of a subway station on their way to work. Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker who tries but fails to keep up with the escalating pace of the assembly line. When he begins to tire he literally falls into the machine and becomes wrapped around the gears that drive the factory. The experience of being inside the machine drives Chaplin’s factory worker mad and a slapstick disruption of the factory and its assembly line ensues. Chaplin’s character is taken to the hospital. Man was not meant to live by watch alone.
For most of human history, the idea of time was derived from and regulated by nature’s circadian and seasonal rhythms. Chaplin’s audience remained in contact with those understandings and could use them to evaluate the spectacle of manmade mechanical time. The factory, with its pitiless gears and sprockets, might have represented a new understanding of time but they could also see that newer was not necessarily better. What seemed a comical exaggeration of reality to moviegoers in 1936 now carries the weight of tragedy. We know what Chaplin’s factory worker could not– we know that the struggle against machine would prove to be futile.
During the long decades of the Post War generation’s adulthood, we disassembled the factory that Chaplin so skillfully lampooned and then rebuilt it— inside of us. Man is no longer taken into the machine, The machine is now inside the man.