Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                 ESSAYS
 2. On the chronophages or time-eaters

competition for time. competition for limited resource. reverence for life. Albert Schweitzer. Kenneth J. Gerge

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Essay 2. On the chronophages or time-eaters


This essay on chronophages, or time-eaters, is a distant echo of Montaigne’s Essay 30, On the Cannibals, with which it  has nothing to do on the surface.

A droplet of water from a pond and even from a tiny pool left by the yesterday's rain is full of life. It is both a botanical garden and a zoo, with the protozoa representing the animal kingdom and the algae standing for the vegetation. One needs a microscope to visit the zoo.

There is some distance from the puddle to ABC or CBS TV networks, but we will get there pretty soon.

The micro-zoo could be an excellent starting point to understanding life in all its manifestations, from hot water bacteria to whales and from earth worms to sequoia. Actually, it is a good starting point for many other things.

All the species in the pool compete for matter to build their bodies and for energy to keep them alive. This alone still does not reveal the essence of life. The rocks in the Japanese rock garden live in eternal harmony because they do not multiply. Interestingly, the gardens themselves can be multiplied: they have a design, a code of a kind, but they need humans to work as enzymes.

We have to add the word multiply to any description of any kind of life. This clarification dramatically changes the idyllic picture and makes it messy.

If all the creatures start multiplying, the resources of available matter will be sooner or later exhausted. The creatures themselves will be the only remaining food, tempting, well balanced and concentrated. And so they eat each other in a certain pecking order. Those at the top attack the live food, while the underdogs have to wait until the kings,  emperors, and czars die to get their bite at the funerals.

Fortunately for life, there is the blessing of death: everything dies in due time, and therefore everybody has a chance of surviving until its own due time. The matter can be recycled. Death provides nourishment for life, and we, liberal humans of good intentions and meek hearts, are not exception.

This is not so with energy: it cannot be completely recycled. That was a stunning discovery of the  nineteenth century, of the same magnitude as Darwinism and genes.

Energy exists in two forms, work and heat,  and only work can keep living bodies alive, while excessive heat can only destroy them. The source of work for the life on earth is light, an organized, ordered form of energy, unlike the chaotic heat.

It would be wonderful if we, humans could live on solar energy and be like plants, the only politically correct, green to the bones creations on earth, endowed, in addition, with everlasting  beauty.

Until that time of bliss comes, only we, humans, can produce work from heat in our heat engines, but part of it is always lost with heat. No other life form but humans can do the trick of utilizing heat.

The heat engine is a human-made contraption that takes in, for example, steam or products of gasoline combustion at high temperature, transforms part of heat into work and ejects the mixture at a lower temperature, if an appropriate cool place could be found.  Part of energy is lost as heat to warm up the cool place.  Not a single living organism has this kind of contraption capable of making work from heat. Its invention launched the Industrial Revolution and a new super-biology of Things that are not by human touch.

We can collect the energy exhaled in the form of residual heat and squeeze some meager work out of it, but even a larger part of the new total would again escape as heat. The catch of the heat engine is  that each next squeeze has to be done at a lower temperature, and finally we cannot find anything cold enough on earth to wring the last droplets of work out of our flabby tepid heat transfer substance, whatever it is.

If we keep the mini-zoo in the dark, it will not die. The protozoa and algae will look dead, but they will produce their spores, the seeds of new life that do not need energy and matter for their existence because they are almost as dead as rocks and sand, but not quite: they are both dead and alive, more exactly, potentially alive. They are like a blue-print of a bicycle: it can be stored for years and even centuries, but somebody will be able to reconstruct the ancient bicycle from the blueprint. The modern bicycle is also a product of long evolution, still bearing the family resemblance to its wooden patriarch born in 1690 in France, which can also be reconstructed today from its blueprint.

The potential future life and destiny (as well as the past of their species) of the spores is written into their genetic code, which is just a long sentence in a language that all forms of life speak to themselves. What is not written is their last life: the sound of the last rain, the shadows of the slow clouds and swift birds, the loose leaf fallen from the nearby tree, and the dog's paw hitting the puddle like an asteroid from the space. What is written is the result of the millions of life cycles during which the forms of life gradually changed from their ancient predecessors to their  present appearance.

How was that possible? The answer was offered by another great discovery of the nineteenth century made by Charles Darwin and extended by  molecular biology that developed a century later.

And now let us turn on the morning news on any network. We are invited into the world of beautiful smiles, elegant dresses, soft diffuse light, friendly jokes, and happy talk. Everything is designed to infuse our morning coffee with confidence and optimism. Nobody seems to be in a hurry.

Nobody's face is distorted with hatred and cruelty. There is somebody else's blood and suffering on the screen. There are other channels to see a shark devouring a seal and the lion clawing an antelope. There are even more channels to watch humans dismembering each other. This is our American life.

We are strong, free, and independent. There is enough electricity to run the show and the marquees above the streets.

Yet under this glimmering surface we—being in a certain rather morbid frame of mind—can find really brutal struggle for existence. The war goes on between the episodes of the show. They try to slash and slice each other, piece by  piece, to cut each other's nose and ear off, to chop off a hand and a foot, and often even to hack somebody else's head off.

The episodes fight for a limited resource, which in this case is neither energy nor matter: it is time, the substance of poets, philosophers, and working moms. The struggle displays right before our eyes: we see interviewed people cut off in the middle of a sentence, their point insufficiently clarified, important issues muddled and unimportant extended, superficial standard questions and reminders “you have twenty seconds,” but we also see some really breathtaking coverage pushing its rivals off the nest without any excuses. The commercial time, however, is with rarest exceptions, untouchable.

The issues and episodes struggle for the limited time. The outcome of the struggle is not predetermined because the show is mostly live. That's it: live. The TV news as they exist today is a product of not so long a history and it has evolved right before our eyes from its black-and-white mix of information and advertisement to the present colorful mix of entertainment and advertisement sprinkled by information. Right before our eyes, the morning news has become mostly fun and weather instead of being a source of information. The source of energy is advertisement, the time share of which is ever growing even beyond the strictly commercial time, finding new forms of spreading through the cracks. The source of matter is still the traditional sensational stuff, but we can already see a shift to virtual reality of a magician on the stage. The food for the eyes pushes the food for thought off the bench.

God forbid, in no sense  am I criticizing the TV network industry, and for a simple reason: we cannot criticize life. All life is sacred, and so is the life based on competition for time. All evolution is sacred, no lion is better than a hyena, and ameba is no worse than whale.  From the evolutionary point of view, no Charlie Rose show is better (or worse) than Jerry Springer’s because all this is life of TV, and TV is a form of life itself.  The sanctity of life means that all its forms are equal from a certain point of view.  And by life here I mean meta-life: all forms of competition for a limited resource involving a code of a kind transferred from generation to generation and subject to mutations.

Here it seems appropriate to recall Albert Schweitzer and his philosophy of reverence for life. While for Schweitzer life meant a phenomenon of strictly biological nature, we still could apply the principle of reverence to all forms of life based on competition for a limited resource, all the more, they are still run exclusively by humans: life of weaponry, TV, corporations, toilet paper, aviation, music, poetry, transportation, religious fundamentalism, and birth control.

Unlimited spread of life leads to competition for matter and energy. The principle of reverence for life, therefore, if applied unconditionally, is in fact irreverent to life. As result of competition, some forms of life will suffer and others face elimination.

The shocking side of such reverence for meta-life, i.e., life as evolution of forms, seems to be that we have to embrace war, struggle, conflict, aggression, expansion, corruption, politics, and even robbery and murder as much as the stinky ugly hyena mangling the beautiful defenseless baby antelope.

Actually, this is what we, the humanity, have been doing since our cave times. The apparent dilemma follows only from mixing up ethics and science.  Both, however, are forms of meta-life, too. The stele of Hammurabi, created in  the eighteenth century BC, is one of the earliest forms of the genetic code of law and ethics. On the one hand,  it protected the weak and poor from injustice, but, on the other hand, punished the guilty by death for minor (from modern point of view) offenses. Reading the laws of Hammurabi, I always hoped that their cruelty could have been mitigated by  bribe.

All we can do, before making an ethical or logical judgment,  is to look at the issue from the point of view of the laws of nature. Is it a form of life or not?  If it is, is it alive or dead? What is its source of energy? What is its source of matter? What is its code? How fast is it changing? Such an open-minded approach could reveal some things usually hidden from the focus of attention of network TV news and even the public TV, which is also a form of life with its sources of energy and matter, and its own claws, fangs, and means of mimicry.

After that, we can decide whether something is good or bad for us. The rock is dead (is it?) and we have the right to crush it into gravel. The tree is alive and let us think hard if we really need to cut it. The man with the rifle is alive. Do we really need to kill him? The fetus is alive (is it?). What is that we can and cannot do with it as compared as what we can and cannot do with our own ailing hand or foot? As soon as we expand the notion of life, among the host of new intriguing questions  the unavoidable pro-life/pro-choice controversy arises.

I would put understanding before the emotions, although from my own experience I know how difficult it could be. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once noted that the habit is a heavenly gift: it is a substitute for happiness. I see emotions as a gift from hell: they are a substitute for reason. I suspect that both ideas first occurred to the ancient Greeks who had wars instead of TV serials, with  a lot of time on hand for exercising their minds between the wars.

Competition for time has been created by the human production of Things: objects designed for consumption by humans. They all compete for the shrinking pool of human time that is being eaten off by commute, increasing workload, checking junk mail and email, reading junk documents designed by computers, and waiting at the airports.

Competition for time is shaping our life, with so much of that life taken by TV, commute, and work. All this is obvious. But could  any new forms of meta-life originate from this overpopulated pool of time?

Emotion, or heart versus reason,  is a great gift, too, whether from hell or from heaven. We cannot live either by reason alone or by heart. In our mind, as well as in our heart, the same competition for a limited resource goes on between contradicting impulses and decisions, as well as between reason and emotion. The pool of outcomes, however, is of the size of a single action. This competition looks more like a Miss Universe Beauty Pageant: there is only one crown.   We can think in thousands of ways but act only once.

It is worth remembering that the chronophages feed not just on each other's time, but on our own time, too, although most of us will never be seen on TV network shows. Junk calls and junk email, tiny electronic bacteria, are most potentially fatal types of chronophages because they multiply with the speed of light possible only in an electronic medium and never in water.

We are luscious green pastures for the time-eaters, and there are many species of them. Remarkably, we, the omnivores, cannot take a tiny bite of them! In the world of  time we are the grass and all we can do is to savor this new refreshing and humbling feeling of being a low form of life and looking up to the Things that feed on us (see Essay 6).


1. More on chronophag on the Web (but not quite what I mean).

2.   On intellectual competition, see Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: The Belknap Press, 1998.
This book is remarkable for many reasons. One of them is that it shows the world of philosophers and intellectuals in general as competition for limited resources, very similar to what happens in a droplet of water. Collins calls the resource "attention space."  In the struggle for the place in that space, philosophers form a real ecosystem with symbiotic and antagonistic relations and take positions in something like a food chain.

3. A brilliant picture of the competition for time and its implications can be found in:
Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life,
NY: Basic Books, 1991

POSTSCRIPT (2016).  By 2016 the extent of digital time waste, especially, by social media and among younger generations, is truly gargantuan. It is slowly becoming the subject of public debate, adding to the waste of time.  You can now waste time with “smartwatch,” a wearable wireless crabapple on a digital apple tree.  
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