Wednesday 16th September 2020

Time, Privacy, and Tests

I think time is the weirdest of the dimensions. Times flies. It escapes us. We lose track of it. We don’t lose track of width, or height, or depth. When we see a child we haven’t seen lately and comment on how much they’ve grown, our surprise is not at how far they’ve traveled through the third dimension but how much they’ve traveled through the fourth.

When I remember things, everything seems either more recent or further ago than it actually is. Fiddling around idly with some dates the other day I realized that I’ve now been in lockdown for over 1% of my life. And over 4% of my working life. On the one hand, 1% isn’t very much. On the other hand, it’s incredible that it registers at all as a number.

Thinking of this, I’m reminded of a terrifying Wait But Why article that represents the typical human life as a series of squares, each standing for one week. They fit on my phone screen without needing to scroll.

I also find it weird to think about things that happened before my birth. The moon landings, to me, feel like something from another era, grainy black and white images. But I realized the other day they were only eighteen years before I was born. The moon landings for me are what September 11th will be for children born last year. And of course, there’s that other moon landing time fact: the time between the Wright Brother’s inventing flight and the moon landings is nearly as long as the time between the moon landings and now.

Time does a lot of things. It heals all wounds, it dulls pains and feelings. It also inures us of things. This week on OneZero I have a piece about our exhaustion with privacy. Perhaps another of time’s effects. We’ve gradually become more and more used to having less and less privacy and now at times seem to be annoyed at the very mention of it.


A short, fun piece in the New York Times about email greetings.

“When the pandemic first hit, it felt so crazy, because there were deadlines that still needed to be met, so you were emailing people,” Ms. Fosslien said, “like, ‘Hello, hope everything is OK given that the world is crumbling to pieces. Do you have that paper I needed?’”

Email openings have always been hollow: “hope you are well,” a necessary bit of social fluff before asking about the work you actually needed doing. But lockdown and general widespread disaster has rendered this more striking than ever. It’s imbued everything with gallows humor. There was a moment, at the start of lockdown, when I felt like everyone remembered that the people we were working with and talking to were humans. But as the new normal has become just normal I’ve found it has slipped away again and we’re back to treating everyone else as irritants, frustrations, and things in the way of the work that we need doing.

The London Review of Books is the closest thing I’ve found to a UK version of the New Yorker. It’s like the New Yorker in that the writing is very good but also (as I’ve said before) that every story is about 2,000 words longer than you would like it to be. That said, they have a “diary” section (perhaps their equivalent of the “personal history” section from the New Yorker) that features very readable, fun stories. Including this (very funny) one by Patricia Lockwood about her experience of having coronavirus.

‘No tests,’ a blurry telehealth doctor informed me, and advised me to go to the ER if my symptoms became severe. What counted as severe? What, for that matter, was a symptom? The pain was like a long, steady sunburn inside my chest; the weight was like a lead apron. It seemed more sensible to crawl from place to place rather than walk. My mind had moved a few inches to the left of its usual place, and I developed what I realised later were actual paranoid delusions. ‘Jason’s cough is fake,’ I secretly texted a friend from the bathtub, where I couldn’t be monitored. ‘I ... don’t think his cough is fake,’ she responded, with the gentle tact of the healthy. ‘Oh it is very, very fake,’ I countered, and then further asserted the claim that he had something called Man Corona.

‘The love of my life is now my enemy,’ I thought to myself, crawling out of the bedroom on hands and knees to take one million mg of Vitamin C, because what the hell else was I supposed to do – apply leeches?

During lockdown, she adds, “everyone had suffered a falling-out with time”. Time, man. It seems so straight forward that we travel through it, second by second, minute by minute. But our experience of it is always backward. The only things we’re aware of are our memories.

Sometimes, when I’m reminded of an author I like, I go on a bit of a kick and keep reading things they’ve written. I have a list of a couple of dozen authors which I periodically check to see if they’ve written anything new (or if I’ve missed anything old they’ve written) and then I run around the internet reading them. One of those authors is Paul Ford. I first came across him when he wrote What Is Code, which a whole issue of Bloomberg Business Week was given over to.

Recently I came across a piece he wrote in New York magazine nearly ten years ago about social media.

I do not enjoy Facebook — I find it cloying and impossible — but I am there every day. Last year I watched a friend struggle through breast cancer treatment in front of hundreds of friends. She broadcast her news with caution, training her crowd in how to react: no drama, please; good vibes; videos with puppies or kittens welcomed. I watched two men grieve for lost children — one man I’ve only met online, whose daughter choked to death; one an old friend, whose infant son and daughter, and his wife and mother-in-law, died in an auto accident.

It’s a great piece, but perhaps what’s most fascinating is how little Facebook (and our attitudes towards it) has changed over the last decade. The piece could have been published today, not July 2011.

“Real rapport,” “real conversation,” “complexity,” and “depth,” could be code words for “an appropriate level of respect.” Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci disputed Keller’s claim that time spent on social networking comes at the expense of “in person,” backed it up with links to research — and did it on Twitter.

We talk about the pace of change, but sometimes I wonder if change isn’t as fast as it really seems. Time, again! In 1900 humans couldn’t fly. By 1970 we were on the moon. By 2020… we have TikTok.

That’s all for this time. Until next time,