With radio signals controlling her solar wristwatch, a Berkeley, Calif., physicist times her life to the second whenever she’s in her native Munich, delighting when she walks out on the metro platform just as the train arrives.
“I want to know the exact time. I want to know it’s two minutes and 22 seconds past 1,” said Birgitta Bernhardt, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist who is researching the smallest units of time ever measured – quintillionths of a second.
Bernhardt laughs when she talks about her fixation, but as fellow citizens of the digital age, we all share it to some degree. Seconds matter – to us, to our society, to our economy – more than ever. Technology has made it possible to do so many tasks from anywhere, and so quickly, that growing numbers of tiny moments, each with its own value, fill our days in a way new to our human experience.
We may not know the length of a quintillionth of a second, but sometimes it seems as though work, family and play bring us a seamless flow of quintillions of tasks every day.
In the 19th century, the railroads forced towns to synchronize their clocks – until then all ticking on their own local time set by the noon sun. Today, the technological drivers of our global economy are bringing the whole Earth into sync.
University of California-Berkeley professors teach online classes with assignment deadlines set on global Greenwich Mean Time. Call center employees in Manila clock in as the sun rises in New York. A sleeping watch salesman in Carmel, Calif., bolts awake for a 1 a.m. call from Hong Kong about a rare Rolex, and a Palo Alto, Calif., tech CEO holds a 6:30 a.m. conference call with a French client whose clock says it is 3:30 p.m.
The railroad has come again.
Seven days a week for more than 25 years, John Bonifas opened and closed his jewelry and watch shop in Carmel-by-the-Sea, rarely taking a day off.
But when he stepped onto Ocean Avenue at day’s end, he left his business and his customers at the door.
His 30-something sons Josh and Kris aren’t behind the counter at Fourtane every day, but they are open for business day and night, all week long.
“If I really need to get some info from my brother on his day off … I’ll call and text several times,” Kris said.
Josh specializes in vintage Rolex watches, understated pieces of history that evoke nostalgia for a pre-electronic era. But with clients and suppliers calling from all time zones, prices in the thousands of dollars, and smartphone cameras and websites moving the timepieces at a dizzying pace, his job embodies the fragmented, global time of the modern economy.
The digital age that threatened to kill the mechanical watch business instead brought it new life – and made it intensely competitive.
“If I don’t pick up the phone, it just goes to the next person within two minutes,” he said of the risk of losing a deal.
So Josh keeps his iPhone close. An important call could come in at 1 a.m., interrupting his sleep; in the second quarter of a college football game in Mississippi; in a hospital delivery room.
It’s a family joke that minutes before his daughter’s birth, he was on the phone, making a deal.
“I got the lecture that I’m not ever present anymore, which is true,” he said. “I’m always distracted on some level.”
The mobile workplace has definite advantages – chief among them, not having to go into the office on the weekends, said Steve Hoover, CEO of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology company PARC, the legendary Xerox research center that inspired Apple’s first computer.
“The fact that I can take my daughter to her dance class and work for 15 minutes while she’s doing her class, that’s great,” he said.
But figuring out how to negotiate their time with these newly blurred boundaries is a challenge for the 38 percent of college-educated Americans who do at least some work from home each day. That number is growing and double what it was a decade ago.
“It’s not so much the time, it’s that you’ve got to switch your head from your work world to your personal world in these microslices,” Hoover said.
He asked: What if you sneak a look at your phone while your wife is away from the table and see a troubling email?
“Can you push it out of your brain and focus on where you’re at?”