Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four quartets


We race westward at almost the same speed as the world spinning beneath[i], nearly keeping pace with the setting sun.  Looking down onto an unchanging layer of cloud there is no sense of movement.  Time slows, it has no meaning here, suspended as we are in a perpetual twilight, moving both away and towards but set apart from, the rest of humanity.  Like the air through which we move, time flows around our enclosed capsule of space at 35,000 feet but does not touch us, opening-up the possibilities of future destinations, while closing off the past we have left behind, leaving us contained only in the ‘now’.  From this vantage point we cannot alter the past, nor affect the future, we experience only the continuous flow of time present.

In Four Quartets Eliot suggests, ‘All time is unredeemable’, but that does not mean it is without value.  Eliot, having worked for a period at a branch of Lloyds bank in London, would have known all about the relationship between the value of money and time.  Time future and time past, as well as time present, all have value that is captured and used in multiple ways, by individuals, organisations, communities, and governments.  The value of time is of fundamental interest to economists, who are concerned with ensuring efficient use of our scarce resources.  Physicists on the other hand, like the poet, are more concerned with the fundamental nature of time, but even they struggle to explain what it is.  A recent debate[ii] over the nature of time noted that:

“Those in attendance wrestled with several questions: the distinction between past, present and future; why time appears to move in only one direction; and whether time is fundamental or emergent. Most of those issues, not surprisingly, remained unresolved.”

A key concern for physicists appears to be how to “…reconcile our perception of time’s passage with a static, seemingly timeless universe”.  Some of the participants at the debate argued that increasing entropy (a measure of the disorder in a system) “…explains why events are more likely to evolve in one direction rather than another…(and) accounts for the arrow of time”.  Although it seems even on this point not all agree as others “…argue that gravity…causes matter to clump together, defining an arrow of time that aligns itself with growth of complexity”.  Beyond that it seems to get more confusing with a wide range of views on the nature of time and its role in the universe.  Even Einstein struggled and failed to find a satisfactory explanation of time and “…despaired of understanding the flow of time and the meaning of now”[iii].

In the bell chamber, Dom Tower, Utrecht

We can therefore be forgiven for finding the concept difficult, although our concern here is not so much about the fundamental nature of time, but with how we actually utilise and value such an uncertain aspect of our lives.

For thousands of years humans had only vague concepts of time and no means for accurate measurement.  A more ordered sense of time was initiated in the medieval period, possibly first of all within the religious orders and monasteries where life required “…submission to a temporal order that was imposed by the collective” [iv].  Starting in the 13th century it is suggested that bell towers gradually became more important in signalling the start and end of the workday, as well as other events such as markets.  Bells were also important at sea, on sailing ships before reliable clocks existed, to sound every half hour through a watch, and indicate the change of watch.

Although we now have more sophisticated means of measuring time, bells still have significant meaning in our lives.  Hemingway, for example, was able to use a line written in the early 17th century[v] as the title for a book written in 1940[vi], knowing full-well his readers would understand the significance of a tolling bell.  Recently the stopping of Big Ben in London for four years, to undertake repairs to the clock tower has caused much consternation[vii].  Ships continue to carry a bell with the name of the ship engraved upon it; and, on a more local level, one can still hear a bell rung in some pubs for ‘last orders’ and ‘time’, signalling the imminent closure of the bar.

And then the man, he steps right up to the microphone
And says get your last just as the time bell rings
“Goodnight, now it’s time to go home.”
And he makes it fast with one more thing…

Dire Straits, Sultans of Swing. 1978


Time as a resource

Despite the advent of mechanical clocks (in the 14th century), and our ability to measure time ever more precisely and in ever smaller units, time remains, for humans, a resource with uncertainty attached.  We can conceive of a nano-second but not experience it directly, and we can imagine eternity but not grasp its meaning.  Our allocation of the resource falls somewhere between the two, but our individual quota cannot be predicted, and no-one ever knows how much time they will have.  Time is therefore a limited, uncertain, and scarce resource, which makes valuation both interesting and complex.  Scarcity of time present, and the unknown limits on the total personal quota, would imply that significant value should be attached to time; and individuals are acutely aware of time limited constraints on what might be accomplished.  Our inability to derive clear measures of value are reflected in the paucity of our techniques when making project investment decisions or analysing impacts of policy change.  When using cost-benefit calculations, for example, we fall back on average wage rates and simplified discounting when trying to determine the value of time.


Three forms of time

A new face overlies an older clock, on Girona Cathedral, Spain

We have three forms of ‘time’ resource available to us: the past, the future, and the present, each of which can be valued in different ways.  ‘Time present’ as a resource, or factor of production, has a value in the market place.  The resource is highly subtractable – meaning that time spent on one activity ‘subtracts’ from its availability to be used for something else.  Once a period of time has been utilised for one activity an alternative cannot be pursued, and due to path dependency the action taken may also constrain future options.   ‘Time past’ is captured and monetized in myriad ways through the ‘heritage’ industry, and more worryingly through attempts to control interpretations of the past and manipulate shared perceptions.  ‘Time future’, as a high value resource, is also captured, largely through institutional arrangements that guarantee access to specific commodities, labour, or capital.

But the uncertainty surrounding time influences the way we both utilise and value the three aspects of the resource.  In terms of time past, the importance and significance of events is constantly changing as we revise our interpretation of history in light of political ideology, new evidence, and cultural perceptions of how we should live our lives.  Time future is inherently uncertain as we do not know how even the next minute, hour or day might impact our lives, let alone what might occur further into the future.  The unpredictability of events leads to risk aversion, attempts to capture future resource streams, and a massive expenditure of resources on insuring against possible adverse impacts that might occur, in order to try and guarantee that our lives in the present and the future are not so different.  But it is time present that is the most complex, in terms of our understanding, our utilisation and how we can value something so elusive as the ‘now’.


Part 2 of this discussion will explore past and future time in terms of its use as a ‘shared’ resource and not just something we experience as individuals.



[i] At the equator the Earth is spinning at 1,673 kilometres per hour (km/h).  This gradually decreases towards zero as one approaches the poles.  Thus, on a long-distance flight in a plane taking a great circle route in the higher northern (or southern) latitudes, there will be times when the speed of the plane approximates the speed of the Earth’s rotation.

[ii] John Donne (1624) Meditation 17: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

[iii] Ernest Hemingway (1940) For Whom the Bell Tolls.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[iv] BBC News (21 August 2017) Big Ben falls silent for repairs.

[v] https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-debate-over-the-physics-of-time-20160719/

[vi] http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/09/27/495608371/now-and-the-physics-of-time

[vii] Frank, A., (2011) About time.