Alien Duration and the Experience of Time

Reprinted in Hackcircus #10, ‘SCALE’ (2016)

What I remember now, and you can see why, is the day The Humhums landed. (a) I noted the time and date for posterity and (b) a while later, realised I’d gotten the time wrong. Now, of course, the idea of divergence from a ‘right’ Earth time is quickly becoming outdated. Very soon, we will not be using Earth time. It just isn’t very useful.

Since joining the Sagittarian Union, the day to day turning of the Earth has become less and less important. I blame what made us successful galactically. When they first got here, our pleasant voices and interesting hair made us a very popular site for their call-centres. Soon, the entire planet became the Centre for Calls. People from elsewhere often referred to Earth just as Support World. Everyone all over the galaxy knew our voices, and styles of typing, and head shape. There were parodies of the human social style on Sirian Broadcasts.

But since we affected nearly everyone on every planet, it seemed worth it. A human could travel from one side of the galaxy and be treated with interest. People liked to see us in the flesh, as it were, rather than over the phone. They bought us drinks, groomed lice from our suits and hair. On some lonely howling plane, it became common to meet some alien race — such as a Cuboid Squint, or a Garbled Potater — initially outlandish, barely comprehensible, and have them ask:

— ‘Can you say ‘Hev Yeh Troid Tear-ning Et Eff end In Agin?’

There was a problem, though, a problem that I want to write about today. It is an issue pressing down on us because of what is happening currently on Earth. It’s the problem of time. Rhythm. The Beats of Life. The When of the Galactic Now.

Work Time

What time — currently, I mean, Earth time — do you get up for work? What time do you stop? Currently, I work in a call centre which serves the planet Numpty three solar systems over. It rotates at a rate of 97 hours and 3 minutes Earth time, that is, a little over four Earth days. The Numpty-Dumptys — as they like to be called — have, like most races, a 1/3 time work day.  That is, they work for 1/3 of 97 hours. This is 32 hours and 20 minutes.

To serve them, the call centre has us working on three session shifts, each of 10 hours and 47 minutes. But the bosses are based on Numpty, and set the shifts. So, for the last few years, first, I work on the first shift every one of their days.  I work for 10 hours and 48 minutes every four days, one hour, and three minutes. If, on Monday, I work at 9 then I finish at 7.48 in the evening. The next time I work is on Friday: I start at 10.03 and finish at 9.01 in the evening. The next time I work for Numpty is on Tuesday: I start at 11.06 and finish at 10.04. And on it goes.

In between I also work on other jobs, so I’m not losing money. But there are similar jobs on other days, and it can get very confusing. The point is this: it is hard to keep track sometimes when you’re working, and supposed to be logged in, and when things overlap, and how to prioritise, if you measure these periods in terms of Earth time.

So anyway, this is why the suggestion is, going forward, to change Earth over to Galactic Time. We drop our years, months, days, hours, minutes, etc., and stick with the standard of galactic time. This would certainly make my job easier. Numpty is a particularly successful world in the Sagitarrian Union. Its day cycle just so happens to be a multiple of a particular unit of galactic time, the wark. One Numpty day = 14 warks (which makes a wark… something Earth days).

Of course, scientific instruments are already set to Galactic Time. When humans go to college, they are taught the system, and so can easily translate from Earth time to Galactic Time. But many administrations find the translation tedious, and after a generation or so of this, would now like to just use one or the other for everything. So, they want us to use Galactic Time. For obvious reasons – it makes work easier.

Measuring Human Experience of Galactic Duration

I’m a little wary though. My brother is a homo-cognitivist (as opposed to, e.g., a pan-cognitivist, or a numpty-cognitivist, or a squint phenomenologist). He studies the human experience of time. And he studies, in particular, how to manipulate the human experience of time. He is interested, he says, in temporal illusions — in particular, distortions in the experience of duration. He is interested in ways in which our experience of duration is mistaken.

He uses Galactic Time (GT) to measure it. He asks people to do the following: given different stimuli, and contexts, to say how long some experienced events, or sequences of events, feel expressed in GT. Then he compares this evaluation with the actual time it takes (in GT),  This gives him an idea of what he calls the distortion or error in the experience of duration under different circumstances.

I think my brother has gone profoundly wrong. His talk of distortion and deviation suggests this: if people’s reports of their experience of time in units of GT diverges from some GT clock, then what they use for their reports has gone wrong. That is, whatever they are using to judge the length of time which has passed in GT terms, it diverges from the GT clock. And this divergence is due to a mistake in their experience of time. It is a distortion in time perception, an illusion of duration.

But it isn’t. Whatever it is that we might be using from our experience of time to judge how long something takes, it is not a GT clock. It’s unlikely that we have anything like a GT clock inside us. Even if we had some kind of clock, it would be strange if it turned out to be designed to calibrate with the Galactic Time. It is something evolved, something that came before Galactic Clocks, clocks which we accept now due to the convenience of trade.

Perhaps we might say at least that reports of one’s experience of duration diverge from the GT clock. But even that is open to confusion. It presumes that any measure by experience and measure by the GT clock is in terms of equivalent units. This is like saying that, when one counts the number of drips of a leaky tap, the difference in that count from seconds on a clock means the count diverges from the clock, e.g., 23 drips in 76 seconds means the tap measurement diverges from clock measuring. Or clocks that count in warks diverge from clocks that count in hours.

GT clocks, Earth clocks, and dripping taps do give different counts for the same sequence of events. But this is no divergence between them unless their counts are in the same units — or translatable to the same units, and the translation gives a difference in those units.

Would you say that someone who counts in hours diverges from someone who counts in minutes? No — only if you treat both individual’s units as equivalent. Only, for example, if you measured in shmours and shmours were equal to 30 minutes. In that case, how you measure in shmours can be said to diverge from measures in hours if, for every 2 shmours you measure, you get anything other than 1 hour.

In any case, human experience of duration and GT clocks don’t diverge, starting on some common ground and then moving away, They are not like fragments of the same explosion. They have different rhythms, different patterns of repetition, and if used to measure anything, have different standards and calibrations. They might not even have calibrations. GT does. But experience might  not. It might just be a dripping tap.

We might still mistakenly treat experienced time as calibrated to GT time. If someone, when first hearing a dripping tap, or recalling a sequence of events, associates them with a particular standard for measuring time, this is to associate an independent and uncalibrated rhythm or pattern with that standard. Any divergence is to be expected.

After I gave this long, detailed and previously memorised rant, my brother was quiet for some time.

But We’ve Always Done This

Then, he said: “but we did the same thing with Earth clocks before the Humhums landed.” If they diverged, we treated differences in reports of one’s experience of time (in terms of clock time) from clock time’s measures itself as if our experience is mistaken — as if we are under an illusion or distortion in our experience of time. We didn’t treat the experience of time as something independent.

“Except”, I said, “Earth clocks are from the same source as our experience of time: the cycle of sunrises and sunsets, the seasons, and so on.”

“But so what”, he replies? “Your point, if right, is the same for that clock as GT. Dripping taps are not calibrated or evaluated by either — and so, so you say, neither is the experience of duration.”

“This is who you remind me of,” he adds. “Lemuel Gulliver.”

Gulliver’s Clock

“Lemuel Gulliver is an arrogant narcissistic lunatic. He believes that whole countries, identical to his home, are differently sized simply because they are different in size to him. If I traveled to Lilliput, I wouldn’t think as Gulliver did. I’m more reasonable. I would think that something in my journey made me giant – not that a whole country, otherwise identical to my own, is shrunk. If I traveled to Brobdingnag, I would understand something in my journey made me a Borrower.

Gulliver thinks he stays the same, and the world around him changes.

You, brother, are the same. You think the experience of time is right, and GT or Earth time are wrong –“

I cut him off — “No, not a right time and a wrong time, a correct clock and an incorrect clock.” The story is not Gulliver’s but Alice’s and Goldilocks’. What changes is the relation between something and what surrounds it. But, beyond that, what really changes is meaningless.

“In Wonderland, Alice doesn’t ask about the door to the garden: ‘is it small and I am normal sized?’ or ‘is it normal sized and am I a giant?’ She just wonders can she get through it – and drinks the potion to fit the door.

“In Goldilocks, none of the porridge, chair and bed is the wrong size. They just don’t suit Goldilocks. She eats, sits and sleeps in the ones that do.”

And my experience of time, if it fits anything, is not obviously supposed to fit what moves on my wrist, or three solar systems over.

Of course, I do have to take account of these other clocks to get a job. But that’s like having to hide grief on the train to work. It is something useful. This does not make it true.

What Now

Anyway, there’s nothing much we can do about it now. Galactic Time is going to be our time very soon. How soon I can’t say. And you mightn’t understand what I’m talking about here after the change.

When that has happened, our Earth-scale days will be treated as cycles of planetary activity measured by a great Galactic Clock. People will talk about days in different amounts of time. These new days will be something like 12 + 1/7 of our current days.

In a new day, we will talk about multiple sunrises and sunsets. The passage of the sunlight will be like an ocean tide: regular to its own rhythm, going in and out in a constant hush. Like the ocean tide, the old Earth days will be something against which we once set our most important clocks. But, soon, no more. To think this way will be primitive or quaint – or, we will forget we ever thought it at all.


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