A Point of View: Why it's getting harder to lose track of time

Collage of clocks Image copyright Alamy

We are surrounded by time-pieces, clocks and ticking devices. Have we been tyrannised by the idea of "now", asks Will Self.

Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is one of the best-known pieces of 20th Century fiction - best-known, but not necessarily most-read. Rather, in common with Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Kafka's tale of a man mysteriously transformed into a large but non-specific bug, has attained the status of a modern myth - everyone is familiar with the story, if not the text. And everyone has a view on what it means. There are those who see it as a fable about anti-semitism, therefore predictive of the Holocaust, and others who're convinced its themes are principally sexual, and to do with the suppression of physicality.

One thing's fairly certain. Following the author himself - who told his publisher that if the story was to be illustrated at all, it should be with an image of "a young man lying in bed looking depressed" - no critical reader has accorded Gregor Samsa's transmogrification any great objective reality. Although Kafka was a writer who largely eschewed metaphors, the conviction remains that Metamorphosis is one such, extended over some 80, very odd pages.

Odds are that my own interpretation isn't particularly original, given the great critical industry the Czech writer Milan Kundera has slighted as "Kafkaology". But as with all the rest, I offer it up not because I'm convinced it's definitive, but because the tale itself resonates so loudly in my own mind I feel compelled. Compelled is also what Gregor Samsa feels - on the grey morning he "awakes from troubled sleep" to discover he has been transformed into an "enormous vermin", his shivering into being is mediated by the awareness that he's already late - his alarm clock has failed to go off, and he's missed his train.

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Image caption A 2011 performance of an opera adapted from Metamorphosis

As a lowly and not terribly efficient travelling salesman, this is no minor dereliction. It could cost him his job, in which case both he, and his family, who are financially dependent on him, will be ruined. However, as the story progresses, and the bug-that's-Gregor is rejected by both his employer and his family, we realise that they're all quite capable of getting along without him - confined to his bedroom, beaten and maltreated, Gregor eventually expires, the last thing he hears being the church clock striking the hours.

And that, for me, is the very essence of Metamorphosis - it's a novella about the dire consequences for an individual if he resiles from time itself. Of course, when I say "time" I don't mean a simple succession of events, but the particular kind of temporality that came into existence towards the end of the 19th Century, was hardened up throughout the 20th, and which now holds almost every psyche on the planet in its vice-like grip.

This sort of time I call "industrial time" - and as the designation suggests, it came about due to the calibration of industry with all kinds of precision chronometry. It's well known that prior to instantaneous communication at a distance (the telegraph and telephone) and to the connection of cities by relatively high-speed transport systems (the train, the motor vehicle and latterly the aeroplane) local times varied considerably, although often by small increments - such that it was, for example, 10 minutes earlier in Bristol than London.

The inception of universally recognised time zones, and the ubiquity of clocks and watches, led to people becoming increasingly aware that they were all - no matter where they might be physically - inhabiting the same moment. It's perhaps a rather destabilising notion - that "now", far from being a given, is in fact a social and cultural construct - and yet surely it is. The books, magazines and newspapers of the late 19th Century, and the early 1900s are full of writers hailing the new immediacy - if you like, the zeitgeist was indeed the zeitgeist.

But while there are no shortage of acknowledgements right up to the present day, of the ever-increasing pace of life, few are prepared to tell it how it is - Now has become a sort of singularity, or black hole, into which both past and future are disappearing at an alarming rate. Tony Blair may've hoped his legacy would be making poverty history - but since the campaign was launched on New Year's Day 2005, what we've witnessed instead is the increasing impoverishment of history itself, while poverty, I suspect, will always be with us.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Born to a Jewish family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka worked as a lawyer for an insurance company and died from tuberculosis at the age of 40
  • His best known works are The Trial (1915) in which a man finds himself arrested and put on trial for no apparent reason, and Metamorphosis (1915) in which Gregor Samsa inexplicably wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a beetle
  • Kafka only found fame posthumously, after his friend and executor Max Brod ignored his dying wish to have all his work destroyed

Travelling back from India at the beginning of last year, I had to change planes in Dubai. It was the middle of the Middle Eastern night, and as the escalator hauled me up past metallic palm trees into the main terminal, I became transfixed by a series of posters advertising the weird buy-to-let city-state itself: "Dubai," they proudly proclaimed, "The Centre of Now". Setting to one side the preposterousness of the claim, I had to admire the chutzpah of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's PR company. In the pre-Copernican world it might have been possible to argue that here or there was the centre of the world - and by extension, the centre of the Ptolemaic universe - but in our Einsteinian one the epicentre of temporality itself must be both everywhere and nowhere at all.

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Image caption Dubai - the self-proclaimed "centre of now"

You, for example, are at the centre of Now - your computer or mobile digital device is precisely synchronised with the same atomic clocks which determine the slow and near-infinite pulsing-away of the universe towards utter entropy. Such are the ubiquity of chronometers nowadays that we're hardly ever in a position to forget what time it is - even if we tried. Sleep is barely unconscious anymore given the myriad peeps and ticks that punctuate our quasi-dormancy - for, unlike Gregor Samsa, we're quite incapable of drowsing through the alarm, having completely internalised it. Obviously the world wide web and the internet have played a key role in making each and every one of us a little hot spot of Nowness - over the past 20 years, as more and more people chosen to spend more and more of their time in this virtual realm, so we've sought to furnish its fuzzy immensity with our memories, individual and collective.

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Not so long ago, if you wanted to get some idea of what the past had been like, it was an exhausting business - one involving libraries, old films, and even face-to-face conversations with those who'd arrived from that other country - but now many of history's riches are a keystroke away. Some might argue that these uploaded images, texts and sounds are merely an ersatz version, and that no one can really apprehend the peculiar quality of a given era, but when you seriously consider the matter, surely a different conclusion is inescapable - the past has, is and always will be always been utterly unknowable, while our new forms of media only condemn us more thoroughly to an ever-expanding present, one which is even gobbling up the future as well.

The philosopher Schopenhauer said that the reason any individual feels, at any time in their life, as if they don't know where all the time went, is because instead of living in the present we all spend the greater part of our day either ruminating on the past, or projecting myriad alternative futures. But now we can go online, and in real-time explore exotic locations, or adopt different personae, our personal futures can be enacted right away. As for the future of humanity overall, the great and linear narrative set out by the Abrahamic religions looks very much like wishful thinking - millenarian from their inception, these faiths aimed to place their believers at the very centre of a transcendent Now, by calling upon them to joyfully welcome the final reckoning. Now it seems that religion and science have, for once, intersected, and we are indeed living in the End Times of time itself. It may well be that all our other apocalyptic fears - environmental, nuclear, chemical - are simply neurotic displacements protecting us from this terrifying realisation, one which makes turning into a giant bug seem, by contrast, a veritable walk in the park - albeit one taken on many little legs.

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This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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