Cartographies of Time: Part I

By Maptia, Co-founder Team Share

This is the first post in a two-part series on the cartographies time. Here, we explore one of the most fundamental assumptions in recent Western civilisation - our perception and measurement of time. We ask where it came from, how it affects the way we live our lives and the role travel has to play in the way we experience time. Part two will trace a handful of unique temporal footprints from different places and cultures around the world.

Co-written by Jonny Miller and Dorothy Sanders. 

Travel has a wonderful tendency to make you question your assumptions, from the foods you thought you liked to the way you measure time. It can cause you to question your whole way of life, your morals, your beliefs, the things that really matter to you, and even your purpose here on this planet. Your life is thrown into stark relief by what you see other cultures doing around you and by the unfamiliar experiences you have while on the road. Occasional epiphanies will cause you to realise that the complete opposite of a previously held conviction is true.

If we keep an open mind, travel allows us to imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes, feel what others feel, and understand what shapes people’s world view in other cultures. Psychologists refer to this as ‘cognitive empathy’, which essentially means relating to and having compassion for other human experiences and beliefs. Here at Maptia, we think that collecting stories, fresh perspectives on the world, and an understanding of the nuanced differences between cultures is far more rewarding than collecting souvenirs.

Upon visiting China, you might learn for example that Chinese doctors see their job as being to keep you healthy, as opposed to only working to cure you when you are sick. For this reason, they only expect to be paid for weeks when you are not ill. Cultural differences provide many such examples, but perhaps one of the most interesting of these is the way we perceive of time - a part of our culture that is deeply rooted within our psyche and until we question it, often something we take entirely for granted. As psychologist Claudia Hammond argues, time is really another unspoken language of the world: 

We all construct the experience of time in our minds… it is not only at the heart of the way we organise life, but the way we experience it.
— Claudia Hammond

A Brief History of Time

Time-keeping was much more of an art than a science in ancient times. People relied on the turn of the seasons, natural events – for instance, the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egyptian times - and the waxing and waning of the moon. As early as 6,000 years ago it is thought that ancient civilisations used some kind of lunar calendar to measure time.

The regular linear timeline, cut up into days and weeks, is in fact barely two and a half centuries old. Many of ancient civilisations, including the Incas, Mayans, Babylonians, and Ancient Greeks, held similar beliefs that time was circular and that history consisted of repeating ages - day and night, the seasons, and life itself - in an infinite loop. This philosophy of time is also part of Hinduism and Buddhism today. 


Above: A Buddhist ‘Kalachakra’, which is a sanskrit word literally meaning ‘time-wheel’. 


Above: Certainly not your traditional map - this impressive work of art is the ‘Spiegazione della Carta Istorica dell’Italia’ by Girolamo Martignoni in 1721. Girolamo’s work in cartography offered some of the first systematic visualisations of the linear ‘stream-of-time’ metaphor. Credit to Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg.

The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
— Albert Einstein

Devices that measure the ongoing passage of time on a day-to-day basis took longer to evolve. Through sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, and pendulum clocks, to the first mechanical clocks and now to atomic clocks, man has wrestled with the challenge of accurately measuring time. Seconds didn’t start appearing on clocks until the 1500s and it wasn’t even formally defined as being a scientific unit until the 1800s.

Today, time has become something tangible, something to set our lives by, and often to measure our success or happiness against. Even our biological needs are tied to the rigid structure of the clock. For instance, it might be ‘too early to go to sleep’ or ‘still two hours to dinner time’. It is almost inconceivable to imagine our world without clocks - they are there on our desks, on our screens, our wrists, and even in our pockets on our phones. In many places, time has become a commodity - we spend it, just as we spend money.

How did this remarkable shift in temporal consciousness occur? Imagine, if you can, seeing a clock for the very first time in human history: 

Then, in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of a life. It was magical, it was unbearable, it was outside natural law. Yet the clock could not be ignored. It would have to be worshiped.
— Alan Lightman quoted from ‘A Geography of Time’ by Robert Levine

Time Today

In his book ‘A Geography of Time’, academic Robert Levine explores our beliefs about time and the way we live it, and discusses why they have come to be the way they are today. One of the examples he describes is from the 1891 catalogue of the Electric Signal Clock Company. It sheds light on the way clocks were promoted to a mass market: 

If there is one virtue that should be cultivated more than any other by him who would succeed in life, it is punctuality: if there is one error to be avoided, it is being behind time.

Levine also cites the 1881 5th Grade Edition of McGuffey’s Readers: 

It is continually so in life. The best laid plans, the most important affairs, the fortunes of individuals, honor, happiness, life itself are daily sacrificed because somebody is behind time.

Not only was the superior accuracy of ‘clock time’ promoted, but also the moral value of punctuality. This character trait came to be inextricably linked to a growing class of new high achievers. According to the beliefs we have cultivated, quickness, timeliness, and doing more faster are crucial to living a successful and happy life. To this day, in the Western world, watches are still sold as symbols of status or given as gifts to reward hard work.

Given this philosophy, how can we slow down? How can we take a nap, or stop to admire the natural world around us? For many, this is a challenge they face daily. Some people thrive on fast-paced, action-filled time, while others crave a slower, more reflective way of life.

Travel and time

Travel is one of the ways in which we can slow down, and experience time differently. Distanced from our micro-managed daily routines, we feel the minutes and hours passing differently, and we have the opportunity to observe how other cultures relate to time. It has the power to give us new perspective on the way we measure time in our own lives.

Where we travel has a great effect on the types of time we experience. Think of the hectic streets of New York, where so many business men and women are rushing to keep to a tightly-controlled schedule and most tourists are anxious to pack their days with activities to make sure they see all the sights. Then compare this with a weekend spent hiking in a remote mountainous area or a day with islanders whose time is still measured by the rising and setting of the sun, who still live subsistence-based lives, and where the concept of an hour can stretch away into a long, hot afternoon. The effect on your internal body clock and on your perceptions of time will be very different.

What would time look like if we mapped it out across all the different cultures? Where would it be at its most compressed and harried, and where would it stretch out over long, leisurely afternoons?

Times flies

When we travel, and are engaged with meeting new people, exploring foreign cultures, or perhaps scuba diving over a live coral reef for the first time, our awareness of the here and now is heightened and our perception of time often feels warped. Think of the saying, ‘Time flies when you’re having fun!’ Most of us would rationalise that one hour cannot be longer than another, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way. This reminds us that although we can now define a second of time down to such precision that we only lose a second once every 300 million years, time is still ‘felt’ subjectively. 

When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes; when you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours. That’s relativity.
— Albert Einstein

The Moroccan village where our company HQ is based is popular for travelling surfers, many of whom are seeking to experience moments of ‘tube time’. Even the best tubes, when the barrel of a wave breaks over the surfer and he is riding inside the wave, might not last for longer than a few seconds. Yet many surfers have said that time seems to go into slow motion when they are in the barrel and that time seems to pause. If it is not surfing, you may have had similar experiences through other activities, perhaps while completing a challenging exercise or working on a difficult project. The Czech psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly describes this as ‘flow’, a state of mind in which time seems to melt away: 

...where you are so absorbed in the activity that nothing else seems to matter… any sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You become part of something larger.
— Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly

Perspectives on time

Time is a capricious and ever-changing aspect of our lives. Often it drags by slowly when we want it to speed up or rushes by when all we really want is to savour a moment. Philosophers and scientists have long debated whether time is a fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which events occur in sequence, or whether it is simply an intellectual concept that enables us to rationalise the events in the world around us. No matter how we experience time, whether we see it as a task-master or a precious resource, its presence penetrates deeply into all aspects of our lives.

 Travel can help us to understand time in our lives in new ways. The unfamiliar, often thrilling experiences we have give us the chance to experience time differently, and we come to understand that not everyone in the world views the concept of time in the same way. That in fact, some cultures don’t even make time a part of their lives, while other cultures are wary of time passing by, or run their lives by the clock.

Travel affords us a new perspective. Reminds us that time, at least the way we understand it today, is always passing. And most importantly, that we must make the most of ours.

Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day.
— Dalai Lama

Thanks for taking the time to read this post (pun not intended!) If you have a spare moment, please tweet this post and @mention any friends who you think might find this post interesting as well.

Before you head off here a couple of our other popular posts we think you will enjoy.

Great Expeditions - 20 dusty black and white memories and vivid colourful photographs of modern-day explorations.

Rolf Potts in Paris - we waxed lyrical about his vagabonding misadventures and flâneuring in Paris.


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Location taghazout, morocco