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 an aquarium and a cageless zoo populated with bacteria, protozoa, and algae. One needs a microscope to enter this zoo .

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

The droplet 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 that have nothing to do with each other at the first look.

Plants and  algae build most of their matter from carbon dioxide in the air, but they still need some minerals. 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. We have to add the word multiply to any description of any kind of life.

The rocks in the Japanese rock garden live in eternal harmony but do they multiply? They need to be groomed and could be reproduced from photos because they have a design, a code of a kind, and they need humans to work as enzymes to create and maintain them. They can even evolve, remaining a single object, but if they represent life, it is the life of the people who take care of them. They are part of human lives and are alive in this problematic sense. 

If all creatures start multiplying, the resources of available matter and energy will be sooner or later exhausted. The creatures themselves will be the only remaining food, tempting, well balanced, and concentrated. And so they will eat each other in a certain pecking order. Those at the top can 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. Matter is conserved: life turns not only into dead matter or other life, but also into stone, for example, limestone and coal, or gas, like methane and carbon dioxide.

Energy, unlike matter, 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 work keeps living bodies alive, while excessive heat can only destroy them. The ultimate source of work for organic life on earth is light, which is an organized, ordered, refined form of energy, unlike the chaotic heat.

It would be wonderful if we, humans could live on solar energy like plants, the only politically correct and 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 known life form but humans can do the trick of turning part of heat into work outside their organisms. The invention of heat engine launched the Industrial Revolution and a new super-biology of Things that are made not by human touch but by other Things.

If we keep the mini-zoo in the dark, it will not die, will it? Some of the small creatures 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 of the spores, as well as the past of their species, is written into their genetic code, which is just a long sentence or, rather, a novel in a language that all forms of life speak to themselves. What is not written there is 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 because of their ability to multiply, but not exactly reproducing their ancestry.

And now let us turn on the morning news on any network. We are invited into the world of beautiful smiles, elegant dresses, soft 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. No broadcaster's face is distorted with hatred and cruelty. There is blood and suffering of  strangers 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 murdering and maiming each other. But we are safe and there is enough electricity to run the show.

Yet if we are in a certain, rather morbid, frame of mind, we can find really brutal struggle for existence right behind the glimmering surface of a TV screen.

The episodes of a live show fight for a limited resource, which in this case is neither energy nor matter, neither food, nor money: it is time, the nourishment of poets, philosophers, and working moms. The episodes of the show try to slash and slice each other, piece by  piece, to cut  nose and ear off, to chop off a hand and a foot, and often even to hack somebody's head off. 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, unimportant expanded, and reminders “you have twenty seconds” intruding. With rare exceptions for rare events, the the time of the commercials is untouchable and the total time cannot be stretched even for a millisecond.

The outcome of the struggle for time 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. 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, especially, on a computer monitor. The internet is a shark pool.  The food for eyes pushes the food for thought off the screen into the garbage bin. 

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 form feeding on time. All evolution is sacred, no lion is better than a hyena, and amoeba is no worse than whale.  From the evolutionary point of view, no Charlie Rose show is better (or worse) than Jerry Springer one because all this is life of TV, and TV is a form of life, like all technology.  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 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. Should we?

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, terrorism, 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 maiming and 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? In what way it procreates? 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? Maybe we do. The fetus is alive (is it a human like you and me?). What is that we can and cannot do with it as compared with what we can and cannot do with our own ailing hand or foot? As soon as we expand the notion of life,  the unavoidable pro-life/pro-choice controversy arises among the host of new intriguing questions.

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. Emotions are a substitute for reason, but hardly a gift from hell: happiness is an emotion.

I suspect that most our ethical 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. Free time is  a necessary condition of freedom.

Competition for time has been created by the human production of Things: objects designed to serve humans or be consumed by them. They all compete for the shrinking pool of human time consumed 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. 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.  In our mind, as well as in our heart, the same competition for a limited resource goes on between contradicting impulses and logic, as well as between hundreds of reasons and a dozen emotions. The pool of outcomes, however, is of the size of 1: 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. The digital bacteria, like junk calls, email, ads, games, videos, and never looked at twice photos are most potentially fatal types of chronophages because they multiply and infect with the speed of light possible only in an electronic medium and never in water, air, or on land.

We are luscious green pastures for the time-eaters, and there are many species of them. Remarkably, we, the omnivores, cannot respond with taking a 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 trample us and feed on us (see Essay 6).


1. More on chronophage on the Web. 

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

  By 2017, ten years since the birth of iPhone, the extent of digital time wasting, 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. The clock and watch synchronized modern civilization, propelling it to dizzying productivity by saving time.  Ironically, you can now waste time with the smart watch, a wearable wireless crab-apple on a digital Apple Inc. tree. 

From time to time, the media publish a few obituaries of pleasures  of our life that iPhones killed, but killing time is celebrated on a massive scale:

2 Great Apps to Kill Time « iPhone.AppStorm

    5 Ways to Kill Time on Your iPhone Without Playing Games

    10 Apps To Kill Time - Silicon UK

   Google: best time killing apps 2017 . About 12,000,000 results (0.41 seconds)

A peculiar ecosystem has developed on the limited and non-renewable resource of time, supplied, like our free energy of sun, by the clockwork rotation of the Earth. Our daily time is saved by digital devices to be wasted by other digital devices.

Back to the very beginning of this Essay. Are humans
a new form of cannibals devouring chunks of each other and their own life time? We are still at the question stage. Yet the smartphone is the second after wristwatch mass product of human-machine fusion. 

Finally, we begin to recognize that competition for time is getting much closer to cannibalism than one could ever think. For a start, this title will do:

Smartphones Are Killing Americans, But Nobody’s Counting

                   Amid a historic spike in U.S. traffic fatalities, federal data on the danger of distracted driving are getting worse.


Page created: 2001                                      Revised: 2016, 2017

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