Daily Postings
Literature : Word Choice

Time Management in Quicksand

by Ben Comer

Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry.


Still from The Mothership Connection, 1974.

From the trail back there, the way you were moving, I took you for a heron toeing a crab hole. My eyes aren’t so great.

Nah, just being a stick in the mud. Really sorry to have pulled you into it. I was trying to leverage, get the width of my back horizontal on the surface, and then kick my feet up and roll away. I pulled my foot out of my shoe and should have just left it, but I tried to grab it with my toe and in the process—

It’s okay. I’ve been stuck out here before. Wish I hadn’t left that cooler of beers back on the path though.

What are you fishing for?

Red drum. We call them spottail bass or just reds. They swim up in the shallow marsh to eat those fiddlers you were chasing. You see their tails with that spot on it splashing around when they put their nose down in the mud to dig, then you throw a spoon right past their face.

You call them fiddlers because the one big claw out front looks like they’re holding a violin?

Could be. They shot a movie out here a few years back and paid my little girl a nickel for every fiddler she could catch and bring to the set. She rounded up close to a thousand and the director himself gave her fifty bucks. She was proud of that money, and I’ll never forget she handed it right over to me. She wanted me to have it. Didn’t occur to keep it herself. She’s not so little anymore. Why are you chasing fiddlers?

You know what they sound like in congregation? Hundreds or, I don’t know, thousands together. I was walking on the edge of the marsh and heard them, all the bubbling and rubbing of exoskeletons—

I’ve heard it.

I wanted to get a recording with my phone but I stepped in the wrong spot.

You at the college?

Yeah.

What brings you across the intracoastal?

My friend’s aunt lives on the island. She picked us up on her pontoon this morning.

What’s her name? Small island.

Candie.

She’s probably out in the sound throwing a cast net.

My friend was pushing the mower around her back yard so I thought I’d take a look around. He’ll come looking for me eventually, hopefully not after our heads go under.

This isn’t quicksand—it’s pluff mud.

Pluff. Is that a Gullah word? Or Geechee, I guess? Is Gullah the culture and Geechee the language, or vice versa?

Both can mean the language. Where’s your phone?

When my leg went down the reflex was to catch myself, and of course my arms went straight into the mud too. I’ve been trying to feel around for it. Fiddlers took it to the king crab, he’s calling in bomb threats to the crab shack. I appreciate you trying to pull me out and I’m sorry, again. It does feel like I’m sinking a little bit though.

You keep wiggling. It makes the solid particles in the mud separate from the tidewater—that’s why you sink.

So it is quicksand.

Call it whatever you want.

Quicksand was always just a useful metaphor to me, you know? Not a real thing. But I’m glad for the company. Let me ask you a question. What kind of work do you do? Do you fish full-time?

I’m a carpenter. I build sets for movies, do custom cabinetry, but lately my arthritis—

Awesome! You get paid by the hour?

What?

Do you get paid by the hour?

Why do you ask?

You seem like an intelligent person. But like everyone else, including me, through no fault or choice of my own, of our own, you, both of us, are dominated by a ticking tyrant—by a global standard of time that pervades every moment of our lives, from the smallest increment to months and years and decades. We call the front of a clock a face. It’s the face of tyranny.

If I had my pole, I could hook my cooler and reel us out some Buds.

Addiction—and I’m not implying that you’re an alcoholic—I’m just saying addiction is one of the worst symptoms of global standard time, GST. Addiction is a coping mechanism for the agonizing awareness of time passing. Our modern experience of time is fraught with existential dread and obsessive compulsion. People get nervous when they aren’t sure they’re watching the best thing on TV. You’ll never get that half hour back. How many people light a cigarette to kill time? Of course time just keeps marching, fucking boots on the ground. That’s why we as a society have to end time. GST must be stopped.

That’s funny. You should talk to Bucko, he lives over on that end of the island.

Smart people thought George W. Bush was funny, at first. Recognition is the first step toward liberation. Have you read Paulo Freire, particularly his Pedagogy of the Oppressed? It’s from the late ’60s, which I bet is when you first grew that hair out.

In the ’60s we thought unchecked centralized power and racism, sexism, capitalism, titans of industry, fat cats colluding with politicians—we thought all that stuff was the face of tyranny. Turns out the man was Father Time. Daylight savings must be like that tendency in dictators to coddle their pets.

Daylight savings is just a capitalistic device invented to maximize labor productivity, not some generous gift of extra sunlight to frolic in, or whatever. George W. monkeyed with it back in 2005 and managed to make it worse for workers. That guy was like the opposite of Midas—everything he touched turned to shit. But daylight savings isn’t the point, it’s like arguing about the maximum number of rounds you can put in an assault weapon. We have to get people to recognize the larger system of oppression.

You’ve got your work cut out for you. The industry titans need a schedule to run their railroads. Everybody on the same page, on the clock.

Yeah I know, read any one of those books about how to succeed in business by pulverizing everyone else, the ones with the author’s photo on the front cover. They all say information was the currency of yesterday. Now it’s time—time is the true currency of business today.

Those guys sell a lot of books. Is Paulo Freire still in print?

Right because book sales indicate truth of content.

No, but they might indicate the power of an idea, or receptivity and exposure to an idea.

I know what I’m up against, but let me say this about running a railroad. People think just because you abolish time, everything slows down. Constant confusion, everyone’s always missing each other. I was there, where were you, what exactly do you mean by later, for example. The barrier to recognition is epistemological. We can’t understand the concept of a civilization without GST because we’ve never experienced one. But we will.

Cabinetry pays by the job, but I’m on an hourly wage when I build movie sets. All those guys on the front covers of those books, they’d love to do away with the hourly wage. If you can’t measure the workday, you can’t earn a fair day’s pay.

But you can measure, and that’s why the time is now for the eradication of GST. Each to his own ability, each to her own reward. A worker’s performance, and I emphasize the singular here, each single— Hey, someone’s on the trail, HEY! OUT HERE!

That’s a heron. They look human when they strut.

Anyway, each single worker’s performance could be measured by little robots. Free flowing data, breezes carrying data in real-time and matched with pre-established criteria, agreed-upon pre-established criteria, looped directly into your employer’s payroll. You hit the numbers, you get paid.

So in the timeless world of tomorrow, my boss will create a customized dashboard just for me and I’ll do my work according to a unique set of requirements and—

Pre-established criteria.

Pre-established criteria, in order to get paid, paid fairly, and to meet these criteria I’ll need to wear one of those wristband sensors, or some other mechanized jewelry or shoes—or no, I’ll need to inject them into my body.

I wouldn’t characterize it as a dashboard.

Sorry, I’m not up on the techno-jargon, I live on an island only accessibly by boat for a reason. A specialized analytics platform. A clever and sophisticated digital intermediary. Call it whatever you want.

Data streams and sub-streams can be made to converge in elegant ways, and in the case of labor, this kind of assessment process can be as transparent and equitable, and as benevolent, as its creator-designer—and, in fact, that kind of system will be exactly what the market demands.

You had me up to the market will demand equitable pay.

The market will be turned on its ear. You will be just as much in control of the generation and distribution of revenue as your boss, who won’t really be your boss in the current sense of the word. In a post-time environment, it couldn’t be otherwise.

Do you know how hard it is to schedule cabinet appointments? My cabinet business is a business of one, small as businesses get. It’s a dance to schedule appointments on the mainland, for estimating a job and for doing the actual construction. And I buy materials from the hardware store, I don’t even have to manage supply chains and manufacturing—

Most companies already practice continuous or on-demand manufacturing.

Alright. Big changes for the airlines though, the transportation industry. Or the pilot licensure industry and its regulatory counterpart.

Are you talking about hours in flight? Pilots would be licensed based on demonstrated skill and recall, not the amount of time they’ve spent flying. Understand that technology isn’t driving this. We’re talking about enlightened assessment. Not data-driven. Driving data. Managing streams like a bioengineering fisherman who practices catch-and-release. How the actual data is collected is a much easier—

So when my own personal whistle blows each day, I’ll pinch off the bugs and be confident that no one is watching me anymore, and on top of that, no alarm clock will scream at me in the morning, or my cell phone alarm either, which when somebody calls, I won’t know when they called—

All the time people sleep with hearing aids and wireless headphone pods crammed in their ears, but it seems like you want me to say that these little monitor robots will have to be implanted or injected, placed inside the body for an extended duration. Let’s explore that assumption. Some people are repulsed by the idea of elective robot implantation—

I’d say a lot of people.

Even though nano—or, excuse me, yoctobots—would be infinitesimally tiny. It is soo outrageous to propose yoctobot implants, but no one bats an eye at drug-eluting coronary stents or other sorts of internal prostheses. Dick Cheney had a continuous flow ventricular assist device attached to his heart that obviated the need for it—his heart—to even fucking beat. Of course the public at large, I’ll concede, doesn’t like the idea of implants that aren’t cosmetic improvements or that aren’t medically urgent in some way or that don’t bolster musculoskeletal function. Just to entertain the idea of requiring implantation of an electronic biosurveillance technology is tantamount to fascism. Big Brother and all of that garbage.

It’s not the technology itself that’s frightening. Surveillance implies a surveiller and a surveilled. Oppressor and oppressed. More Huxley than Orwell.

Or Ryan Boudinot, to bring us into present day bio-technical alarmist fiction. But you’re correct, surveillance, like oppression, suggests a dichotomy. But, in the new model, the surveiller and the surveilled work in collaboration, and part of this collaboration mandates a periodic role reversal so that the serveiller becomes the serveilled and vice versa, continuously—

It’s just a dragonfly. They don’t sting.

But in terms of labor and organizational management, thanks are due, in some ways—just as a side note—to the influential work of Rensis Likert and his wife Jane Gibson Likert, and their system 4 concept of a participatory structure for business. Truly mutual surveillance is a small price to pay for freedom. Global standardized time, like I’ve been explaining, is an instrument of dehumanization. The first step is to recognize it as such.

And like I said, recognizing it might be a problem. Are you against standardization in general, or just global standard time?

I’m against standardization for its own sake. It’s often useful but can limit creativity and prevent progress when it’s forced on people and their endeavors, or when it’s forced on systems that require creativity and risk-taking to succeed.

Like people.

Like people, yes. Cabinetmakers who don’t want to follow stringent operational guidelines pertaining to standard cabinet width, height, type of wood, diameter of nail, whatever. But to get back to GST, do you think it’s reasonable that the entire PRC is forced to live under a single time zone regime?

PRC?

The People’s Republic of China is like three thousand miles across, west to east. Imagine if New York City and San Francisco were both on central standard. The sun would go down in Fresno at approximately 2pm in the afternoon. That’s a dark walk home after school for the kids.

China’s getting along okay.

Getting along okay? The human project cannot be content to simply get along, to make the best of freedom-limiting structures forced on our society and government. We are objectified by time, by its programmatic diktats. Time is not on our side.

I’ll have an extra bedroom in my house after my daughter graduates. If you wanted to rent it out, what would the lease say?

It is hard to anticipate how the absence of time will affect each and every particular. I’ll grant you that. It’s hard because most of us have never attempted with any rigor to conceptualize ourselves, alive, outside of, or rather without, time. Unshackled. But I think there’s a key piece of this that you’re not getting. No offense of course.

None taken.

Intervals, that is to say, periods of time as we currently understand and experience them, will still exist, at least in the beginning. Solstices of course will still happen, but what will change is their meaning. Waiting or to wait, for example, as a social or an individual activity and all that it implies, will take time to overcome. Wait, let me rephrase that. Rhythm will not disappear from music, though it will be fascinating to see how composers respond to the absence of time. In fact musical notation is a valid alternative means of describing how and when we are in the world, absent GST. I choose the word describe purposefully. Let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve written a transcendent de capo aria, matched in its beauty, elegance, and expressiveness only by the young Italian soprano whom you’ve selected to sing it, with full orchestral accompaniment, which you also wrote. The performance of your aria, as experienced by each individual in attendance, and those who may hear the recording later, is divorced entirely from the musical notation as it exists on the sheet. It’s the performance, the actual sound, that is the aria—not the composition on the page. Even if the soprano hadn’t freely improvised in places, which she did with uncommon expertise and passion, the sheet music could not be mistaken for the actual thing. They’re incomparable. The composition describes the music, which is a collection of intervals comprising a passage.

Fiddler coming your way at nine o’clock.

Thanks. But similarly, the hands of a clock point at or describe time, or signify time, if you prefer. But they are not time as it exists or passes.

China local time is simply an arrangement, albeit a somewhat rigid one, to stay with your musical analogy.

Precisely! That is well said, an arrangement of time. And you have illuminated the fundamental fallacy essential to the invention and practice of a standardized global time since day one. Unlike music and its passages, standardized global time, or objective time as we now conceive of it, is a brassbound, utterly inflexible system. There is only one time, and any arrangements are prescribed. But there are innumerable melodies and rhythms. Imagine how closeted music would be if it were confined to only one standard syncopation.

What if I said there is only one fundamental pulse or beat in the universe, and that all of music is a variation on this tempo.

The difference is that even if we believe that all music has a common origin in a single tempo—a musica universalis from which every piece of music is derivative—in modern times we have not attempted to peg music or tempo to observable or even theoretical natural phenomena, the way we have insisted on doing with time. We have an atomic clock but not an atomic metronome.

Your problem is with the numbering of days. You want to dismantle standardized time.

Global standardized time.

The system of seconds and centuries, which you find arbitrary and oppressive. And aside from making it impossible to make reservations at a restaurant, ending GST will liberate people from the tyranny of their pitiful, wrist-watching existence, to create a permanent and indefatigable now, enabled in no small part by yuk—

Yoctobots.

Yoctobot injections. Analysis, measurement, prediction and control, the elimination of failure through programmed organization.

Not the elimination of failure, but making failure more constructive and efficient. I think it’s one of the most difficult transitions for society, getting people to commit, as a participatory requirement of being a citizen of the world or even your local municipality, being on the grid so to speak, having a civic duty to keep connected.

We’ll want to be sure and ask the yoctobot engineers to program in a little forgetfulness and humor to, you know, humanize things a little bit. Will a yoctobot recognize alcohol or nicotine in the bloodstream as a creative need, or dock it as skullduggery?

Humor is difficult for robots currently, but yeah why not program random forgetfulness of minor obligations or less important data streams, or even the application of calculated forgiveness.

I’m picturing the spreadsheet result of a yoctobot assessment on the amount of milk a nursing mother produces on maternity leave. We’ve detected a decrease, she must be using formula, get her back to work pronto! Or how about the assessment of students in school, educational assessment.

Each to his own ability, each to her own reward.

My daughter would be constantly assessed, and the teacher would monitor her and the other student’s progress toward an individualized goal. Or steadily meeting a pre-established set of criteria that I would want to have a say about—what that criteria is. And if she didn’t, would she have to stay after school, and for how long, since no bells are ringing. My daughter would have to monitor her teacher too, to create the kind of mutual exchange that Paulo Freire was talking about.

You have read Pedagogy! So you know it’s all about love, right? Love is the reason and the weapon for battling oppression. But you say constantly assessed. Constance is exactly the correct word for conveying an idea of timelessness. Constancy is the uncanny product of a perpetual feud between the complacent and the urgent. The objective is to create as balanced and as stable a platform, as consistent a platform, as we can achieve. Everything is constant, the word is already archaic.

If this means I won’t have to race across the intracoastal and sprint up the dock, then risk speeding tickets I can’t afford to pick up my daughter from school on time, sign me up.

You have to sprint sometimes, to run until you throw up or hit the ground. Leaving GST behind doesn’t change that. And this gets back to the intuitive notion—intuitive if we accept that intuition relies on experience—that things will slow down if time is abolished. The opposite is true. If the infrastructure is put largely in place with room to grow beforehand—

How will you prevent people from continuing to tell time? What about the reactionaries, with their goddamned water clocks and sundials?

Smash every sundial! Just kidding. No, of course the entire planet wouldn’t give up on time simultaneously. Simultaneous, the word, might survive post-time.

You’re pretty confident on the inevitability of timelessness.

I’m encouraged by our discussion. But no, it’s not yet inevitable, so to speak. When it happens it will be said that it was inevitable.

That doesn’t make sense.

The question of inevitability makes no sense. It devalues human agency. The word is a weird kind of synonym for fate, which either you believe in or you don’t but either way shit keeps happening. But here’s what does makes sense. Mastering time, instead of being its subject. Total, tech-enabled transparency. Striving to live as though your every action is being observed by the whole of mankind, to paraphrase J. P. Sartre. Yoctobot surveillance will make this perspective ubiquitous. The only equitable way to distribute state and federal resources is to become more sophisticated in assessing need. A society without GST is not constrained by arbitrary time windows, blocked schedules, top of the hour appointments, all of this programmatic nonsense which attempts to force rounded lives into square cells.

A twenty-four-seven world of tomorrow sounds pretty tiresome, physically and mentally. Gives new meaning to fast-paced.

Would you characterize your current life as fast-paced?

I’m chest deep in pluff mud at the moment.

You keep using these phrases that have in the recent past been electrified with contemporary connotations. And then when I confront you with these words—inevitability, fast-paced—you act as if I’m the one responsible for socketing them. Or, it’s as if you stand them up like dominoes set to fall, but dominos also facilitate or are indispensable links in the falling, they’re meaningful because they have an established purpose. But I want to get back to education. The schools would employ analysts that would work in collaboration with each teacher in the classroom, the latter no longer needing to focus on grading papers and checking No Child or Head Start or whatever program’s boxes, but could devote herself or himself to teaching in its fullest, most robust definition. That is to say, a pedagogy so informed by critical response and dialogue between teacher and pupil—

Technology will surely save us if it doesn’t destroy us. Let me revisit standardization, precision machines are calibrated to perform tasks based on—

Time? No, not time. You’re referring again to intervals, which can be standardized. Machines will need to maintain basic standards of quote-unquote time, but they don’t at all need to be understood within the schematic of GST. Standardized intervals will be unique to an individual machine and its duplicates, and the description of this interval will be part of the patent. Units of an interval can be whatever is most specific to the machine in question, whatever maximizes the precision of its use. Measure it in degrees of force required, in temperature, in coffee spoons if you want, whatever makes sense. All that matters is that the interval can be described, understood, and reproduced.

I wonder where Candie’s nephew is and why he isn’t out looking for you by now.

Look, I don’t assume that any of us living today will ever be able to forget time so to speak, give it up entirely. It’s too powerful. Once the first children are born into a society where the use of GST has been dramatically restricted, so that they spend their adolescence outside of time, I think that’s when things really start to happen. I’m hopeful that I’ll have a daughter of my own one day and that she’ll be representative of this generation.

And your picture will appear on the cover of your book.

Books won’t have covers or at least not paper ones unless someone comes up with a cheaper way to recycle, or make trees grow faster. But my photo would go on the back inside cover, if included at all.

I think I can actually see my cooler through the marsh grass, just sitting there. It’s a solid cooler. I guarantee those Buds are still cold.

If only we could pull ourselves from this quicksand.

Or if it were only a little quicker. The sun is going down.

That’s the problem with the baby boomers, you give up too easily. You’d rather choke on pluff mud than have a constructive dialogue about freedom, how to free ourselves from the impetuous ticking of a monomaniacal master. It makes me sad, because I thought we were having a pretty engaging dialogue, and I thought that, well, clearly I’ve failed, because you have not yet come to recognize your own oppression, which as I’ve been saying is step one in the path to liberation.

I’m just going to start yelling. Hopefully someone will hear and pry us out of this.

Ben Comer has published poetry in Pharmaceutical Executive magazine. He lives in North Carolina.

Tags:
Technology
Time
Politics
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