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Can We Talk About Time for a Minute?

Time. It is hard to ignore. It is in so many facets of our language, our behavior; it rules our days, our nights, our lives.

I had the privilege of knowing Edward Hall who was a cultural anthropologist who lived in the Sante Fe, New Mexico area. This was twenty years ago (more time references). I described seeing a large scale shadow puppetry show at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The piece was by Larry Reed, an artist who had adopted the traditional Indonesian style of shadow puppetry and made it his own. In traditional Indonesian puppetry, the scale is about the size of a queen sized bed. It is an intimate affair with everyone huddled near the screen in order to see the shadows of these unique jointed puppets against the cloth. The light source was almost always fire. Reed had graduated away from this form and started creating large scale performances. (While a resident at the Exploratorium, we had helped him figure out a way to utilize a single point light source that would work for large scale shadows).

I described seeing this new work to Hall. It was enormous; large shadows were cast upon a large cyclorama. I told Hall that although I had loved the one-hour performance it had seemed unnaturally long to me. He said, “Well of course. It would.” Then he launched into a wonderful description of an experiment he had heard of where they tested people and their perception of time. During the experiment, they had placed people within a doctor’s office and told them to tell them when they thought 45 minutes had elapsed. Almost everyone could do this and were correct within a minute or two. Then they had people looking at smaller and smaller images of doctor’s offices until finally they were looking at an image through a small viewer. People became less and less able to perceive when 45 minutes had elapsed. The smaller the image, the more time seemed to fly by, escaping their notice.

Edward is dead now so I cannot verify this conversation but it does make me wonder. We continue to shift to smaller and smaller screens and I am beginning to think that our perception of time is shifting along with it. I have started using this to my advantage; while on the treadmill, I love looking at that little screen—the minutes fly by.