The S.24/7/p.a.

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
23 October, 2018
Editorial: 248
Fecha de publicación original: 2 enero, 2001

Busiest men find the most leisure time

The last few days of 2000 were peppered with the message hijacked from the tumultuous end of 1999, for, according to our particular calendar, we are just entering a new century and starting a new millennium. And, as so often happens on these occasions, although this time it’s been a bit more of a rushed job with less pomp and ceremony than last year, we were flooded by predictions of all kinds about this future, which, as children sometimes say, no sooner is talked about than it is already the past. It seems to me, however, that amongst all the good and bad things that have been forecast, some already known and others we have yet to get to know, the most profound change of all is missing. Despite its subtlety and discretion it is, nevertheless, potentially devastating and invasive: it is the 24-hour, seven-day-a week, all-year-round society. In short: the S.24/7/p.a.

It is a a change brought about by the spread of information technology whose ever-widening circle includes everything from research to business and industry, from satellites and remote sensors to photocopiers, answer phones, food and drink dispensers or the automisation of industrial plants. The Internet has pushed this apparent miracle to the hitherto unsuspected extreme where everything stays just where it was, despite the fact that things have moved, gone to sleep or even died. The Net creates the immediacy of its permanence wherever there is connection. And the same can be said even when there is no connection, because the rest of our social habits symbiotically amalgamate in this attempt to be everywhere, or available at least, 24 hours a day.

This new scenario implies personal, social, cultural, political and economic changes that might, perhaps, be much more significant than those attributed to the exploitation of the human genome, environmental degradation, or the divide between rich and poor, to name just three of the most obvious and oft-repeated predictions we hear about the future. Above all because, in the end, the S.24/7/p.a. will include all of them and will require –it is already doing so– a process of adaptation for which we are clearly ill-prepared.

In the USA, 24-hour shops and supermarkets have been around since the mid-80s. Europe has taken much longer to accept what some call the “logic of permanent communication”. Strict work hours, lack of mobility on the labour market despite the single market, delays in the development of open networks such as the Internet, the control of information transfer and differences in cultural approach to the Information Society, are some of the factors that have helped to create this transitory “haven of peace” in the face of the maelstrom that is the S.24/7/p.a. Nevertheless, everything points to the fact that we are already the sons and daughters of this open-door society without physical or temporal frontiers, of networks that don’t shut down for the holidays and that keep working round the clock and round the globe.

The logic of the S.24/7/p.a. affects everything, sometimes slowly and sometimes violently, invading spaces that seem to resist them. And in each and very assault, the time that corresponded to that space is converted into virtual time. In other words, it disappears as if by magic. If we look at it from the perspective of the ubiquity of online data bases, bioinformatics, financial services via credit cards or automatic tellers, the constant distribution of goods and services, telework, 24-hour/7-day-a-week business, global communication, or anything else which we choose to define this society by, the underlying message is the same, short and to the point: we spend more and more –money, intellectual effort, vital energy– on trying to save time. And time is running out because now we live in it as though we were submerged in an oily, slippery, omnipresent substance which is always just out of reach.

The path we have trodden to get to this point where time dissolves away like this has been spectacular in terms of, well, …….. time. It has been estimated that in the Stone Age man worked about fifteen hours a week. In the blink of an eye we have shifted to fifteen hours a day. And the worst thing is that this rate, which takes up our work, leisure and relationship time, is apparently what is needed for us to survive in the S.24/7/p.a. We could say that getting our food is less dangerous than it used to be. But it is no less stressful. Will we be able to keep up this relentless march towards keeping a society that never closes down, not even for a siesta, working all the time, just because we have built it around a technology that never rests?

We have no first-hand experience to provide an answer. Without the casuistry of some research centres which are starting to investigate the impact of the S.24/7/p.a. on individual and social behaviour, the only thing we can fall back on is a biological examination of the process of adaptation we are subjecting ourselves to. The three proteins that measure time in the brain appear in nearly all insect and mammal tissue analysed so far. Living creatures are, in other words, a highly tuned clock for distinguishing day from night, rest from activity and, in so doing, putting the corresponding senses for each state into action, be they smell, taste, sight or simple awareness of danger. This mechanism is behind all the basic life processes, from specialised cell division itself, as the few experiences of this kind conducted on space missions have shown, right up to how species elaborate their evolutionary strategies.

Up until quite recently, it was thought that the biological clock was in the brain and that it was here that the cyclical rhythms of the organism which regulate phases of rest and activity were controlled. The much-studied fruit fly has overturned this theory. This insect has its time proteins in its antennae. At night, these are recharged reaching their peak of activity. During the day, they operate as “smell detectors” and sensors. This discovery “decentralises” the operation of the brain and shows that “peripheral clocks” which tell us what time of day it is, what our energy levels are and how we can use them, exist.

It has not yet been proved that these peripheral clocks exist in human beings. Nonetheless, some recent studies seem to suggest that they operate, somehow or another, in places such as the adrenalin glands. The fact is, that no animal, since life began on this planet approximately 3,500 million years ago, has needed to operate in a S.24/7/p.a., in other words, without a time structure to guide the rhythm of its biological functions. We are the first to do so and it remains to be seen how we will manage. Text books say nothing at all about a whole species that deliberately defies its own biological rules. Rules which directly affect the operation of its most essential organ: the brain.

Research over the last few decades into workers on night shifts, transcontinental air travellers and others who have been obliged to push their biological clocks to the limit, has come up with clear, conclusive evidence that our health cannot stand the rhythm of a time without time and our bodies rebel against this in different ways. According to the most recent studies done by “chronophysiologists”, hormone production, body temperature, evacuation of “surplus matter” or the immunological system, all depend on our circadian rhythms. And scientific production does too. Over the last few years, as our immersion in the S.24/7/p.a. has increased, so has research warning of its consequences. Some of these studies are already talking of the “24-hour society syndrome”: a variety of different ailments ranging from increased susceptibility to viral infections, lack of concentration, memory loss, physical complaints and imbalances and mysterious tiredness.

And this is just the beginning. For the moment, scientific appraisal of the S.24/7/p.a. on health has been based fundamentally on individuals. We know nothing, or practically nothing, about its social impact, how it affects the the behaviour of groups from the point of view of their rate of activity. Perhaps we will be surprised to find in the future that the big divide lurking in wait for us will not be that between rich and poor or the digitally literate or illiterate but those that, on the one hand, produce the goods and services needed and those, on the other, that work to keep those that produce the necessary goods and services awake.

Translation: Bridget King