How the Pandemic Has Affected Our Sense of Time
Our perception of time has become more uniform and objective than ever before.
Posted May 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- The pandemic, distancing, and lockdowns have forced us into passive waiting that draws attention to the passage of time.
- The idea that time can return to the normal experienced before the pandemic is mistaken, because normalcy is relative to a distinct time period.
- We’re so used to thinking about time abstractly, like mathematical units, that we almost forget there are other ways to experience time.
The strange way life is passing lately seems like a permanent state of being that can’t go on any longer. The pandemic, distancing, and lockdowns have forced us into passive waiting that draws attention to the passage of time while palpably disordering the way it feels.
Now that vaccines are rolling out, there’s at least a subconscious expectation (hope?) that time will return to normal along with the rest of life.
But the idea that time can return to the normal experienced before the pandemic is mistaken. The experience of time isn’t ever fixed. It’s a historical phenomenon—our sense of time has just been pulled towards a different abnormal than the one we were used to. Normalcy is relative to the current time period.
Evan Puschak, going by the name Nerdwriter on Youtube, said, “Those first few weeks of lockdown felt simultaneously slow and fast. Hours dragged on at a snail’s pace, but weeks flew by.” His video essay—Time, Tarkovsky, and the Pandemic—closed with the hope that the pandemic has, “Let us see the mosaics [of time] of the lives we were living.”
Regina Reni, in the TLS, shared her experience of finding herself folding the same, singular pair of socks twice. Worried confusion gave way to a different tenor of disconcertion upon her realization that the past and present had, for a moment, collapsed: the first time she’d rolled up the socks was “2 weeks back, the last time I did laundry, in the same location with the same clothes in the same pattern.”
Reni thinks the cause of that temporal slippage, “That the weeks between sock-ballings were so utterly monotonous: always in the same place with the same objects in the same patterns,” points to the “Sisyphean” character of life in lockdown and illuminates “our permanent existential struggle.”
She and Puschak offered optimistic readings of the pandemic’s effect on our perception of time, arguing that it’s allowed us to appreciate time’s fluidity, rhythms, stops ebbs, and accelerations.
I can’t help but disagree: our perception of time has become more uniform and objective than it’s ever been before. What’s strange isn’t that time is moving quickly or slowly, but that each day feels exactly like a day, each minute exactly like a minute.
I don’t know about you, but each of my days seems to be interchangeable with any other; my Wednesday could have been a Monday or a Thursday or, particularly during a lockdown, even a Saturday. The consistency with which days have been passing leaves little to tell the difference between them. The rhythm of a day plays itself out mechanically, lacking the variations that brought inconsistency and surprise to the feeling of time passing.
COVID-19 emerged into a context of ever-present digital time, always loitering in the top or bottom corners of ever-present screens. Flicking your eyes to the screen’s bottom right, which you’ve already done while reading this text, happens without premeditation and, sometimes, too quickly to even be noticed. In whatever case, those three or four digits pull you out of your personal stream of time and into the artificial canal of identical seconds and minutes.
It’s constant—checking the time if someone sent a text message, and anxiously doing the math on how long it’s gone with no response (a fixation that doubles when that check denoting ‘read’ pops up with its own timestamp). When we go full screen with Netflix, a progress bar tracks the show’s internal time and the moment of loading between each episode snaps one’s subjective sense of time into objectivity.
These ways we measure, access, and keep track of the passing hours cannot but affect both our experience of time. Before the pandemic, our continuous exposure to clocks was already shaving away space within which an inner sense of time, changeable and responsive to circumstance, was free to flow. The further expansion of digital time tied us to just one way of experiencing time: the impersonal clock.
A woman named Ruth Belville took over her family’s business of selling the time in 1892. Her father was the first to start his day setting a pocket-watch at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory and spent the rest of it traveling around London to deliver the ‘true’ time to his subscribers. He started on his rounds before the international convention established the prime meridian at Greenwich as the global anchor of clocks in 1884.
Ruth Belville continued supporting herself until 1940 by ferrying the authoritative Greenwich time to the imperfect clocks of London.
As Vanessa Ogle documents in The Global Transformation of Time, the exact and synchronized world time we take for granted is little more than a century old. Time zones pegged to GMT only solidified in the 1930s have taken decades to contentiously crawl across the globe and supersede the local times to which people had been accustomed. Even though they didn’t occur very long ago, we’ve forgotten these changes and the extent of their consequence.
I’m not very old but still remember an echo of the question from which the Belville family made their living: ‘what time do you have?’ Its now senseless character is one sign of the modern depersonalization of time.
People living during any period of time’s evolution would have experienced the sort of temporal disturbance we’ve been going through in different ways. And in truth, the pandemic’s effects on time haven’t been the same within any one society: what those working essential jobs have experienced is completely different than what remote workers have, just as those living alone haven’t been affected in the same way as those living with roommates or family. There’s no greater consistency in how people living around the world have been affected and responded to the temporal disturbance the pandemic brought.
Though reactions will have differed, no one’s can have been wholly isolated from time’s changing infrastructure.
I’ve been interested in whether the strange way time has felt during the pandemic is a matter of our subjective sense of time gaining ground or whether we’ve become even more in sync with the time as we represent it on clocks.
Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, drew a famous distinction between subjective duration and objective clock-time at the turn of the twentieth century. Duration is the dynamic, conscious flow of succession that can’t even be broken down into past, present, and future, let alone the seconds, minutes, and hours of clock-time. In Bergson’s words, seeing duration requires us to
“conceive of succession without distinction, and think of it as a mutual penetration, an interconnection, and organization of elements, each one of which represents the whole, and cannot be distinguished or isolated from it except by abstract thought.”
Fewer and fewer domains retain the independence from “abstract thought” that Bergson attributes to duration; everything can and is being quantified in the form of discrete and binary ones and zeros. There’s no ‘interconnection’ between digital moments and certainly no ‘mutual penetration’ binding one second to the next, only flickering digits that change instantaneously. We’re so used to thinking about time abstractly, as a mathematical entity made up of infinitely divisible second-units, that we almost forget there are other ways to experience time.
When Reni and Puschak write about the pandemic granting us access to new characters of time, they’re claiming that time qua duration has been coming more often to the fore of our minds. I worry, though, that even what feels like liberation from the creep of abstract and objective time may well represent one more of its steps. Yes, time does feel different and interesting right now—that’s why I wrote this essay—but that feeling could be part of the adjustment to objective time becoming, lurchingly, even more deeply ingrained.
The changes to our lives the pandemic has enforced are pushing us along the edge of a movement towards an abstract and objective view of everything in the world that began long before it. Time still resists any attempts to cut it into separable units of measurement, whether as large as hours or as small as millionths of a second. But whether or not we remember that there’s a connective tissue between instants that bleeds when it’s cut, always escaping any attempt to capture it, is an entirely different question.
Thanks to Ilma Islambegović and Hyla Silburt for their comments on earlier drafts of this text.
Bergson, Henri (1910). Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness [Trans. F. L. Pogson]. George Allen and Unwin Ltd.: London.
Ogle, Vanessa (2015). The Global Transformation of Time: 1870 - 1950. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.