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

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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.

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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.