Running Out Of Time?

Joe Kennedy, front center, and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., front right, share a moment during a memorial service paying tribute to Sen. Edward Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Friday, Aug. 28, 2009. The man and woman are unidentified.
AP Photo
Charles Osgood examines time and our fascination with squeezing as much activity into our lives as possible.

It used to be much simpler once upon a time.

The sun rose and then it set. That was a day. A time to plant, a time to reap, it was simple.

Well, that was then and this is now. Ours is a 24/7 world with instant everything. These days, if anything is growing, it's cell phone sales — 110 million and counting. And time, that thing there used to be so much of, is scarce.

It makes one wonder, when you stop for a second to think about it, what all this speed is doing to us.

The movie "Koyaanisqatsi" looks at the effect of speed and technology on human beings. The title means "Life out of Balance."

James Gleick, author of "Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything," says, "The way our world is speeding up has to do with not how fast we do move around. We aren't traveling any faster than we were a generation ago. It's more about the speed of information flow. That's more important than the speed of race cars."

Gleick explains that we feel a lot of stress as a result, and it isn't good for us.

You can blame some of our hurried-up world on the railroads. They forced us to standardize our clocks back in the 19th century, so trains didn't crash into each other. Standardized time also made it easier to telegraph and telephone. Then, as quick as flash, along came the industrial age production line.

Pretty soon we weren't sure who was running things — the people, or the machines.

We seem to be obsessed with the idea of efficiency — work output per unit time — in ways that in previous centuries they didn't think of. In a way, we've all become efficiency experts in our lives.

Are we working more or working less? It's very hard to tell. When you're on the beach with your cell phone, are you working or playing?

Not so long ago, breakfast cereal was fast food. These days, who's got time to pour the milk? Even fast food's not fast enough.

"We love it and we hate it," says Gleick. "It depends on our mood … Sometimes we can say, 'Damn that fast food,' and then we walk out and buy another gadget, or we sit on the couch with the remote control and fast forward through something."

We have countless machines for measuring time, that thing that we never have enough of. But, does anybody really know what time it is?

If anyone does, it's Dr. Dennis McCarthy. He's - get this - the Director of the Directorate of Time at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., where they have the world's largest collection of atomic clocks.

"We keep time to an accuracy of about a billionth of a second. What we call a nano-second," says McCarthy.

A billionth of a second — those are pretty good clocks. But not good enough for our modern needs. There at the Naval Observatory, they're working on an even better clocks to measure even smaller amounts of time.

"You go to one trillionths, that's a pico-second," says Dr. McCarthy. "That's our goal. To be able to do pico-second timing."

You might wonder, who are the consumers of this high-precision time-keeping? CBS' business is one of the main ones. Because television signals need to be synchronized very precisely or things go out of whack — to get technical about it.

Which is one reason for the nano-second. And, what do the television viewers do with all that time they're saving? There are hundreds more channels to choose from. Of course, we usually don't choose any one. We flip around and we channel surf.

"We are quickly bored and we don't like to be bored," says Gleick.

Time used to be a constant thing. Or, at least, we thought it was. But that was before we could stop time and manipulate time to go fast-forward. It was before the instant replay. Those were the days, when time was real. It wasn't virtual or relative.

We do have a sense that we must be approaching some kind of a limit. We have the same brain that Neanderthals had. Well, not really. But, we aren't so much different. How much more can we handle?

Plenty, if you ask 19-year-old Andrew Hood, a student at Marlboro College in Vermont.

"I get bored with just one thing and keep rotating through a series of things very quickly to get things done," say Hood.

He's a multi-tasker. That's a computer word for doing more than one thing at one time.

"I usually like to write a paper, listen to music, talk to my friends in the room and watch other things at the same time. I read also," says Hood.

Paul LeBlanc, President of Marlboro College, says today's students communicate and process information differently then the previous generation. "I think in some ways they are wired differently than those of us who grew up with the book," says LeBlanc. "I think what feels like speed to us doesn't feel like speed to them."

For LeBlanc's daughter Emma, a tenth grader and a straight-A student, doing five things at once is an efficient way to squeeze all the things she has to do into a 24-hour day.

"I think I'd feel rushed if I didn't do more than one thing at once," says Emma. "But, because I do, it doesn't feel rushed at all."

"The odd thing is that even if they don't remember it, our grandparents thought the same thing about their grandparents," says Glieck. "That those were the good old days and their generation was the generation where everything was speeding up in a crazy way."

But, enough about them. How about us?

You say you don't have time to read a book? No problem. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has boiled it all down for you. The whole of Shakespeare in 90 minutes.

"We are always in a hurry," says Reduced Shakespeare Company actor Austin Tichnor. "You want reflection, look in mirror, because that's not what we're about. We just don't have time. We're in. We get to the point. We get the laugh. And we're out."

The Great Books?…They can perform them in 3 minutes. To get the full effect, you have to see the show yourselves — if you have the time, that is.

"There is one sobering thought," says Gleick. "That there's never been a point in human history where a culture finally decided en masse to slow down."

The best of times or the worst of times? We really can't ignore the fact that we're going faster as we run right out the door and we feel we're running out of time and we wish we had some more.

But for today, slow down a bit. It wouldn't be a crime to stop, think and savor life. You'll find there's time.

In the broadcast of this story on CBS News Sunday Morning, the time lapse photography used in "Tempus Fugit" was supplied by Magnetic Art Productions.