Douglas Coupland: How a 24/7 world destroyed time

This year I flew to Auckland on Air New Zealand and, unlike most other airlines, it has WiFi that not only works but also it’s insanely fast and good — even in the middle of the Pacific.

I asked a flight attendant why they had it, and she replied that it was a way of making time pass more quickly and that passengers were generally far more sedated when they had WiFi, and preferred it to sleeping.

I find this a useful metaphor for modern existence and the way we experience time.

A thousand years ago, we mostly lived in mud huts and forts. The word “future” didn’t exist. Why would it? People lived entirely in the present; what few stories there were to remind them of “the past” were called myths and fuzzily transmitted forward. Our brains received three and a half dopamine hits a week, and we lived in a perpetual foggy present.

One of Douglas Coupland’s ‘Slogans for the 21st Century’ for the exhibition ‘24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World’, at Somerset House in London from October 31
One of Douglas Coupland’s ‘Slogans for the 21st Century’ for the exhibition ‘24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World’, at Somerset House in London from October 31 © Douglas Coupland

A thousand years later, we receive hundreds, thousands, of dopamine hits a day. The part of our brain that regulates our perception of time has been overloaded and exhausted, causing our sense of past, present and future to melt together. There is no past; the future turns into the present so quickly that it no longer exists. Ten years ago feels like 10 minutes ago. What, it’s 2020 already?

A friend of mine works at Fitbit in California, the company that makes wrist devices that measure how many steps you took that day; how much you slept; how much of that was deep and shallow sleep; your REM cycles and I’m guessing pretty much everything else about you.

I asked him what kinds of things a Fitbit can tell me about my sleep. He replied: “The best thing I can do is send you a Fitbit to wear for a while. You can track your sleep (REM/light sleep/deep sleep etc) with sensors and algorithms. It gives you a good idea of dreams v reality ratio.”

I pause here to reread that last line: “It gives you a good idea of dreams v reality ratio.” It seems to me that the only part of our lives where this 21st-century neural reconfiguration has had no impact is within our sleeping and dreaming lives. But maybe I’m wrong.

But then, what is sleep? What is dreaming? Why do we bother sleeping? Do all animals sleep? People say sharks don’t sleep but I don’t buy it. All marine vertebrates have to have a down mode. Even fish are now known to “sing” a dawn chorus. How many hours of sleep do you get per day? I need it. You need it. We all need it.

I’m a sleep freak. I get nine and a half hours every day of my life; it’s why I’ve been self-employed since 1988, it’s why I never do morning radio or TV work or take early flights. Sleep always comes first.

My mother has hypothyroidism and sleeps more than anyone I’ve ever met. When I was in secondary school, she told me that if I ever needed to get more sleep, I could skip class and she’d write me a note — an offer I never accepted, which is odd because now my life revolves around sleep.

Sometimes sleep disturbance can’t be avoided, such as with transpolar air travel. For me, it’s either from Vancouver (home) to Europe, or Vancouver to Asia, and on these flights — highly unnatural in themselves — I’ve noticed that there’s always that one passenger who leaves his or her window louvres open during the “night-time” polar section of the trip, and I think these people are assholes.

Whereas most passengers in a cabin are in some form of discomfort while trying to nab what little sleep they can within a craft’s badly ventilated, cramped space, the git in 35K pops his shade and wrecks it for everyone, allowing Greenland, 35,000ft below, to radioactively bathe the plane’s interior with gleaming white light.

Unavoidable sleep disruption is linked to the pie-slicing of our planet into 24 one-hour slices, and what happens when you mess with those slices.

I may live in Vancouver but almost all of my business life involves time zones around the world. Vancouver lies on North America’s west coast, the same timezone as LA. And in recent years, I’ve been getting those oddly annoying online meeting reminder messages that are relentlessly bandied about in the Cloud:

Hi . . . Tara here! Conference call Friday at 2:30pm PDT. Craig and Shelley will be joining us from Palo Alto and they promise to have their PowerPoint act more together than they did last time LOL! And please, a reminder, all phones on airplane mode.

This is followed by the computerised tag:

June 14 2:30 PST-3:30 PST
FRI-MCG-4-Seetharama Ramanujan (7)
NYC-111-16-midtown 30f (6) [GVC]

When these automated messages began arriving around 2014, I often found myself either one hour late or one hour early for scheduled calls, and I’d then get a snippy email from a call organiser, always named Tara, reproaching me for my callous disregard for everybody else’s time.

After a few rounds of this, I began investigating why this glitch kept happening, and what I discovered was this: Tara would input a scheduled meeting time, say 3:00, adding PDT (Pacific Daylight Time) at the end of it.

Why would Tara add this? Easy: it’s because writing “3:00 PDT” feels much sexier than simply writing “3:00”. (It really is, in the same way that ordering your drugs in kilos rather than pounds also feels far sexier.)

But the thing is, there’s not just PDT, but also PST (Pacific Standard Time) and, depending on your timezone, you may or may not be in or out of PDT or PST, and if you put in the wrong one, I will be an hour early or an hour late for your scheduled teleconference.

We inhabit the temporal ruins of an agrarian economy long made obsolescent, in which productivity can be tweaked by changing the nature of time itself. Twice yearly, newspapers run articles on why daylight saving is stupid, and how we ought to change it but we never do. Oh, to live with Santa Claus or on the South Pole! Magic places where the time is always, and only ever can be, 0:00 o’clock.

From Douglas Coupland’s ‘Slogans for the 21st Century’
From Douglas Coupland’s ‘Slogans for the 21st Century’ © Douglas Coupland

I grew up in an alpine suburb of Vancouver so remote as to be technically rural, and, until one gets one’s driver’s licence at 16, one is effectively a prisoner of nowhere.

Fortunately, there was just enough bus service to get me down to sea level and into my first wage jobs at the age of 14: bussing tables at Ricky’s Pancake House, then dishwashing at Pat’s Spirited Fine Dining, then pumping gas at the Chevron at the Exit 7 off-ramp.

I love work and would almost always prefer to be doing something rather than nothing. But at 14 I discovered wage slavery: that I could trade hours for money. This was a revelation: X-number of hours @ $4.25 per hour = new beige cord jeans and a shag perm.

It was only at the age of 18 when this equation turned sinister. It was in the summer of 1980, when I was eligible to work on the massive Daimler-Benz assembly facility located in the furthermost reach of Stuttgart, Germany. Myself and nine other Canadian students were bunkered in what seemed like the only Bauhaus-inspired worker housing that had somehow avoided being bombed in the second world war.

I was crazy stoked to be working there: Kraftwerk! The Man-Machine! “Metropolis”! It was going to be posthuman. I would change my name to Florian, I’d get a cool German nose and all of my emotions would conveniently vanish. It was also an astonishing hourly wage, I think it was US $28 per hour, which was amazing then, and amazing now.

But what I quickly learnt is that assembly-line work is numbingly repetitive; never glamorise it. You want to be as far away from an assembly line as possible. Time stretches on in the most fiendishly slow manner possible, culminating at that magic moment around Hour Six, when the clock actually starts ticking backwards.

I remember the workers there dealt with the perversely slow passage of time by lubricating the working day with mini-bottles of Jägermeister from the snack trollies, starting during the first hour of work.

But here’s the larger point: the Daimler-Benz job was swing-shift, which is great if you have the early Friday shift and don’t have to be back until the late Monday shift — essentially a three-day weekend. But it’s bad if your shift skews the other way: you have a Friday late shift plus the early Monday shift so you get terrible sleep time and a crap weekend.

This swing-shift is where I first felt personally conflicted about the industrial time-for-labour relationship: it wants to colonise your sleep, not just your waking time. This was disturbing to me . . . that someone, or a thing, could annexe my sleeping life, and do so in a manner that left no room for rebuttal or flexibility.

In mid-August, I couldn’t do it any longer, so I bleached my hair and moved to Munich for the remainder of the month. I began art school on Tuesday September 2 1980.

© James Joyce

I sometimes wonder if the reason we all go to school until our late teens isn’t so much to gain knowledge or for society to keep kids off the street — rather, it’s a way of enculturating future adults into the entirely artificial nine-to-five workweek.

There’s nothing natural about the workweek. It was arbitrarily made up by human beings and mostly it . . . it just kind of stuck, and we don’t ever question why we keep it. I don’t know where the eight-hour sleep number came from — I’m sure the industrial revolution was involved there somewhere.

But now, with the neural complexities of the information era being grafted on to the industrial minds of the 20th century, I do wonder if sleep, our last remaining bastion of organic experience, is somehow in peril.

When I was asked to write an essay for the Somerset House show 24/7, it struck me as a funny coincidence — let me explain why. It begins with me saying that Americans are largely convinced Canadians are mostly socialists, and because of this many eBay vendors will no longer ship to Canada. This has forced me to rent a mailbox in the tiny town of Sumas, Washington, a one-hour drive south-east from my house along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Sumas is like a town from a Stephen King novel: most of its businesses are shuttered up. There are no pedestrians. It once used to have a grocery store and some businesses but now it supports mailbox rental places like the one I use, called “24/7”. There’s another mailbox place across the street called “Ship Happens”, which is kind of funny, and I would have gotten a box there, had I seen it first.

For over a year, I’ve been going to Sumas every two weeks and my drive there has always been a happy ritual, enhanced by my playlist which is currently three-weeks-and-seven-hours long . . . (how long is yours?).

The stuff I pick up in Sumas is mostly things I need for art projects, and most of it I buy online between about 22:00 and midnight which, a friend recently informed me, is the time window when men over the age of 50 make all of their big-ticket online purchases, so it was humbling for me to realise I’m the most banal kind of shopping statistic.

And one need also remember that wait times at the border can be from one minute up to several hours, so it’s kind of a form of temporal roulette to cross the border.

For example, the US can reduce the number of crossing guards from five to one — or a heightened security alert can slow down interrogation time by a factor of three to five. And something seems to have happened in the past two months, and it’s not just summer tourism . . . the Americans are simply taking much longer to admit people into their country, it’s a fact.

I don’t like that a new wrench has been thrown into my shopping reality, the physical embodiment of our new asynchronic world of 24/7 online shopping, international borders and regressive politics.

On the Canadian side of the border, land sells for millions of dollars per acre and there’s Starbucks; in Sumas there’s silence and you can see silhouetted faces looking out at you from rooms that aren’t lit from within. The overall sensation for me is that of somehow shopping while I’m asleep. Did JG Ballard write a novel about this? He must have . . . because it’s somehow becoming a real thing.

I was an early adapter to the internet at the beginning of the 1990s, so my brain got rewired by it a bit earlier than most others, but now we’re collectively all in the same neural space. I’m never bored yet I miss being bored. If I forget my phone, my brain feels amputated. In 1999, when I felt my brain changing, I put forth the notion that our brains were rewiring, and was dumped on from all sides.

These days, we all just take it for granted. We’ve reached a collective tipping point. What was once 24 pie slices around the planet has become billions of pie slices around the planet — and they’re no longer in sequence. They happen whenever and wherever they want to and it is royally screwing with our heads . . . We know our brains are fried. Time is shortening. Our lives will soon be over before we even realised they existed.

Daylight saving, jet lag, swing shifts and the 21st century’s endless dopamine hits — what’s your own recipe for filling all hours of the day? Zopiclone? Ambien? Number of steps you took? Netflix? Likes and all that stuff?

I think I’m doing OK, but then I look through a year’s worth of iPhone photography and, technically, it looks like I did shitloads of things last year but, for me, inside my head, it all happened in a flash. Time didn’t pass. It did, but it didn’t. You know exactly what I mean. We’re all strapped inside this ride together. I like it but I hate it, and I know I could never go back to the way things were before. I’m generally an optimist but with regard to this, I think we’re all slightly f**ked.

But mostly at the end of all of this, the thing is this: I miss time.

‘24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World’ opens on October 31 at Somerset House, London;

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