Exploring today's frontiers of time - working the night shift

Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark, by Murray Melbin. New York: The Free Press. 230 pp. $19.95. The movement of human beings into new domains of time calls forth many of the same emotions - and springs from the same motivations - associated with the conquest of spatial frontiers.

That's the heart of Murray Melbin's thought-provoking study, ``Night as Frontier.'' Thought-provoking because it transforms a rather mundane fact - that our wakeful hours have steadily encroached on the time once reserved for sleep - into a social revolution of sorts. Melbin finds the evidence of this revolution on all sides: the millions of people doing all-night shift work, the vastly increased number of 24-hour shopping outlets, the proliferation of late-night and all-night broadcasting. What it adds up to, in the author's colorful metaphor, is the conquest of a new frontier, the colonization of a new territory carved from time, not space or land.

``To colonize time is to annex a band of hours and fill it with active people,'' Melbin writes. These active people behave, he finds, very much like frontiersmen have always behaved. His interviewing of people indicated a hardy democratic air among people who work during the night hours when others are asleep. Status becomes less important; bosses and employees communicate more easily. ``People everywhere are less rushed at night, more relaxed, and glad for each other's company,'' Melbin observes, noting that the same camaraderie was a trait of the pioneers who pushed the US borders westward in the last century.

But life on the night shift has its share of difficulties. Melbin examines a number of these, from the strain on family life to the broader feeling of being constantly out of sync, socially and biologically, with the rest of humanity. But hardship is ever part of the pioneer life, he holds. ``In a well-established society there is less adversity and less good will than at the precarious edge of human settlement.''

Despite the social and familial dislocation created by shift work, some people seek it out, says Melbin. These individuals are often nonconformists - at first the young and poor, plus the artists and writers who prefer the quiet of the night, then, as the ``territory'' becomes more familiar, the less adventuresome mainstream of humanity moves in.

Again using his spatial analogy, the author suggests that night dwellers have ``migrated'' in search of employment, finding positions in 24-hour manufacturing operations or as night security guards, for instance. ``Tumult and harassment force people from a region just as intense competition for jobs and subsistence does. Both kinds of migrations take place in space or in time,'' he asserts.

Has Melbin just pulled off a neat bit of off-beat sociological analysis here, or does this idea of colonizing the night have some practical implications?

The numbers themselves suggest there's something here worth pondering. A little over 100 years ago virtually no one was working in the middle of the night. Now, at midnight, over 7 million people in the US alone are at their jobs. If you include people awake for any reason at that hour, the figure approaches 30 million.

Melbin questions how capable some of these people are of performing their jobs in the dead of night. He notes that a number of recent catastrophes have taken place at night - Chernobyl, the Pemex explosion in Mexico, Bhopal.

Getting a night's sleep during the day can be difficult at best, and alertness can suffer, he says. But Melbin theorizes that ever more wakeful human beings may be in the process of adapting to less sleep.

It's difficult, really, to assess the significance of Melbin's observations, interesting as they are. After all, we're in the midst of the phenomenon he describes and may lack perspective. It's not hard, however, to concede the truth in some of his comments. For example: ``By spreading all facets of our life over more of the day, we have created a more complex community, in which the diffusion gives each person more freedom in how to particiapte and also brings uncertainty into relationships, like family life, that once were close-knit.''

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