Doing things differently since 1984

Is Time Speeding Up?

You don’t have to go far to find someone who feels rushed these days.   Compared to our ancestors, we spend far less time preparing food, travelling, cleaning, building and repairing our homes, getting clothing, and all the other basic necessities of life.  But even as we speed up these processes, it seems like we’re speeding up everything

When learning World History in high school, I couldn’t help but notice an interesting trend in the lifespan of some of Western Civilization’s greatest empires.  I say “Western” because I’m not accounting for, say, China, which has pretty much lasted forever.  Observe (dates mostly taken from Wikipedia, and are definitely debatable):

Ancient Egypt: 3150 – 30 BC (approx. 3000 years)

Roman Empire (including Eastern): 27 BC – 1453 AD (approx. 1400 years)

Ottoman Empire: 1299 – 1922 AD (approx. 600 years)

British Empire: 1707 – 1997 AD (approx. 300 years)

US: 1945 – present? (approx. 70 years so far, already waning)

For my history buffs out there, please notice that I did say these dates are debatable.   And, naturally, I have not listed every empire or world power.  But I think that the general trend says something.  Just imagine – it would be unthinkable now for an empire to last 3000 years.  Multinational corporations, the empires of today, last an average of 40 years.   You can see a visual illustration of shortening empires here:

Timeline of some Eurasian states claiming the imperial title. Dynastic changes are marked with a white line.


The rise and fall of world empires is not the only thing that is getting faster.   In fact, it would be more difficult to find something that is not getting faster.   Compare the time spent sending a letter overseas in 1850 to sending an email now… or even the speed of sending an email now with sending one 20 years ago.  In fact, it appears the entire universe is accelerating in its expansion.

From technology to social change, it’s easy to find examples of everything around us noticeably quickening its pace.  After all, don’t we kind of want it that way?  It seems like if it’s not instant, we want it to be.  Who wants to wait around?  We all want to get rich quick and feel better fast; we look for instant gratification for our immediate needs.   For sure, we humans are the main cause of everything speeding up (except for that expanding universe thing), whether we really mean to or not.

So, if time is indeed speeding up, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Well, let’s start with this: it’s an unavoidable thing.  As population grows, the distance between each of us shrinks, both literally and figuratively.  Ideas are simultaneously generated (more people = more brains!) and shared at an increasing rate.  Collective ideas create demand, collective demand creates action, and collective action creates change.  When change happens more often, it creates the effect of time speeding up.

Go ahead, you can read back over those last few of sentences.  I’ll wait.  It does actually make sense.

This takes us back to the original question: is time speeding up a good thing or a bad thing?  That’s a question for you, and some excellent Science Fiction (or maybe just Science!) writers to ponder 🙂

13 comments on “Is Time Speeding Up?

  1. gingerfightback
    June 8, 2012

    I will ponder that as I eat my jacket potato!

    • abtwixt
      June 8, 2012

      Wonderful! It’s a little known fact that jacket potatoes and deep thought have a long and outstanding relationship.

  2. lbtk
    June 8, 2012

    I fear the demise of our country even though I am firm in my faith. Something has to give! Sandy

    • abtwixt
      June 9, 2012

      Being firm in your faith you are standing on the only ground that is promised NOT to give. Might as well enjoy the ride! 🙂

  3. aFrankAngle
    June 9, 2012

    Sure, the more rapid the change the greater the perception of time moving faster, but in reality, time marches on to the steady beat of tic toc. Let us also not forget that to individuals, aging also provides the perception of time going faster – however, our days as youth were filling waiting and anticipating for something …. whereas as adults, hurrying, get it done, and move on to the next item on the list.

    • abtwixt
      June 9, 2012

      Thanks for the comment – it was actually an article you linked me to that presented a very interesting dialogue on the difference between objective time (tick-tock) and perceived time: http://io9.com/5914112/how-do-you-really-know-what-time-it-is

      You’re right, our clocks are not ticking through the seconds any faster, but it is our perception of time, brought about by just how much is happening in those seconds. Thanks for pointing out the needed clarification.

  4. Randel
    June 11, 2012

    This is my favorite post of yours. Here is why: My blog has musings on life, current events, and markets moving at 70mph; so, we are on the same wave length. Perceived time is moving faster. In fact, my brother has this theory that the faster we go or more scientific and technological we become, it is simply too fast for us. This leads us to look for a more solid foundation, and that turns out to be religions that are more fundamental in nature with immutable laws or rules. I ponder my brother’s theory all the time, and think it may explain why all the countries of the world seem to having growing religious movements that are more fundamentalist.

    • abtwixt
      June 12, 2012

      Randel – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! That is a very interesting theory on people using religion as a refuge of immovability. Doubtlessly this is the case for many. Of course, overall the world’s population is getting less religious than it used to — at least officially. Belief in Jesus may be down, but belief in aliens, zombies, a 2012 apocalypse, and the Power of Love are all way up. It seems we humans have the ability to change everything around us, but have a much harder time changing ourselves and our need to believe in something. Great commentary — thanks as always for your input!

  5. Linda
    June 13, 2012

    Just started a book called the Fourth Turning (by Strauss and Howe) where the authors posit that history is cyclical, not purely linear. They believe that there are (about) hundred year periods between major war (called crisis) and hundred year periods between major religious upheaval of culture (called awakening which are often partnered with minor war) which are 50 years apart i.e. every 50 years either politics or culture go through a major upheaval. The authors focus on western European history since the Renaissance, including America. If this premise is correct, we are not coming upon the end of America as much as the next political crisis which most civilizations get through and start a new golden age but at often huge human toll.

    • abtwixt
      June 14, 2012

      Thanks for the comment Linda – Strauss and Howe certainly wouldn’t be the first to postulate that time/history is cyclical! To me, the sheer number and variety of people who have come to this conclusion gives it some kind of credibility, if not as fact then at least as logically sound. I would have to read the book to hear out their argument about the 50/100 year cycles, although I wonder why they only started at the Renaissance. If they started then because they couldn’t find evidence for upheavals this frequently before that period, it would support my time speeding up theory 😀

      Fortunately for America, the time has pretty much passed that you see nations actually wiped off the map. It’s worth noting that I listed the British empire as having ended in 1997 (with the loss of Hong Kong), but they are still “one of” the world’s most powerful. I have read some interesting articles discussing America’s shift to “soft power”, where its dominating influence in the world is that of ideas and culture more than military and economic leadership. If indeed America’s overall dominance is fading, it seems to be more of a slow shift right now rather than a major upheaval…. we will see what the future holds.

  6. Moon Under Water
    June 19, 2012

    Finally catching up on some reading!

    There was a great book published in 1970 called “Future Shock” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock) where the author Alvin Toffler describes the apparent speeding up of life post-World War II. And it is possibly even more relevant today than it was when it was published – Toffler was one of those sociological soothsayers…worth a read if you don’t know it and are interested in this idea.

    But my own opinion is that time is relative anyway. I’d expect people 100 years ago felt like they had no time for anything either – it’s how we’re programmed. That doesn’t take from the idea that with more people we are getting more done, although whether that means we are more productive is a tricky question – a higher population might just be more chaotic and as a result less productive than a lower population (another great book by Jeffrey Kluger called “Simplexity” investigates this point)

    It’s also possible that living in a time of flux makes things seem shorter, but in the future when archaeologists are putting together our histories they might see the “Euro-American” empire as one large unit that has lasted for hundreds of years, or some other similar theory. Today the Celts are still widely understood to have been a collective unit of some kind even though studies have shown that most tribes that we describe as Celts probably didn’t even speak the same language and many were at odds with each other constantly – the “western world” might be the Celtic empire of the future.

    Great post, it gets the brain bubbling!

    • abtwixt
      June 19, 2012

      That book does sound interesting, and the fact that it was written 40+ years ago makes it even moreso!

      Whether or not we’re any more productive than we were 100 years ago is another intriguing thought to ponder. My theory would be, as we become more and more specialized in what we learn and do (as is the trend of all industrialized/industrialized societies) we become more “productive” as a whole but less productive as individuals. Although, it becomes more muddled when you consider that as we move away from actual physical production and more toward service industries, most of what we are “producing” is hot air.

      By “we”, of course, I mean the Euro-American Empire 😉 I love that term! Wondering how historians of the future will see our present day is another brain bubbling activity favorite of mine. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment!

  7. Pingback: Inspirational Monstrosity – Is Public Art for the public? | Moon Under Water

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This entry was posted on June 8, 2012 by in Current Events, History, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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