Zoe Gonzales / Daily Nexus

Modernity comes with its privileges. All the world becomes available with the swipe of a finger, or the click of a button. People aspire to be centenarians, and it is not the impossibility it once was. In addition to the stainless-steel benefits of a technological age is the creeping feeling that — even with all this saved time — time is still slipping through people’s fingers. The clock ticks on, the hourglass continues to dwindle and the older you get, the faster it seems to count down. Where’d all the time go? 

The answer is twofold. Part of the burden can be placed on the way our brains process time as we grow older, and the wear placed on the neuron systems that facilitate this. The lion’s share of the blame, though, can be found in the man-made machinations of technology and the rapid news cycle. The unfortunate byproducts of technology, and the symptoms of intentional manipulation, contribute to the feeling that the world is spinning faster and faster, and leaving us behind. 

Technology is responsible for influencing the way we experience time. As Aoife McLoughlin, a psychologist from James Cook University, explains “It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time.” She has found evidence that exposure to technology has increased the efficiency of our brain’s ability to process information, leading to the feeling that time is passing by quicker. Those that read articles on their phones, for example, overestimate the amount of time that has passed as opposed to those who read an article in print.  

While this type of technological side effect is unintentional, there are more targeted uses of technology that aim to intentionally affect how we perceive time, which are much more harmful. The rapid news cycle is a well-known political tool that creates sensational stories of the minute, designed to create distance and draw attention away from topics politicians would rather you not focus on for too long. The touchstones of monumental events that used to ground us have been worn away, not by happenstance, but by design. 

The past few years have seen rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and war in Ukraine. Once, these might have been decade-defining events, the kind of shockwave that leaves its mark on the public consciousness. Now, despite the long-reaching consequences these events have, these stories come and go like fireworks for the news cycle — there for a brief, roaring bang before fizzling out for the next dazzle tactic. These kinds of tactics are the groundwork for the modern feelings of being always behind, or always being out of step. The burden of responsible media has been displaced to become a carousel of fast action distraction. 

It is a ploy that has gained more attention in recent years, especially after Donald Trump’s presidency. His deluge of scandals succeeded in hiding the messiest bits from the public consciousness. As everyone talked about McDonald’s being served on silver platters, the story of how Trump influenced the presidential election was swept away. We’ve become so overwhelmed by information, so worn down by the influx of tragedy, that stories of war zones and spyware slide right out of our minds, and our sense of temporality with it. As NPR quotes, “Tunisia’s revolution took four weeks. Egypt: 17 days. Who’s next and how much time do they have?”  

It’s an assault of information at breakneck speed that’s supposed to create the illusion that something major was half a lifetime ago, not just around the corner. Revolutions condensed into a matter of days in a way that leaves no time for them to be absorbed. The modern age has found a way to take the hourglass of time and turn it into a sandbox to be manipulated and redistributed at will. 

While the intentional manipulations of temporality have certainly monopolized the clock, technology is not solely to blame for the feeling that time is sliding by in a way that it didn’t used to. As Professor Adrian Bejan explains, when we get older “the size and complexity of the networks of neurons in our brains increases – electrical signals must traverse greater distances and thus signal processing takes more time.” 

Think of it like freeways within the mind. As you get older, information has to travel greater distances on these freeways. Wear and tear over the years has created potholes or road closures altogether, so it requires more time, and lighter weight limits, to travel on the freeways. In addition, weeks or years make up greater percentages of your life as a child. For an 8-year-old, Cindy Lustig, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, explains, a year is substantially more time in their life than for an 80-year-old. 

She explains that routines have a large part in how we perceive time as well. Those that are older are more likely to have routines that don’t vary wildly in the day-to-day, and are taking in less information, so large periods of time can be grouped together in the brain, creating the sensation that years flew by. When you’re younger, however, you’re taking in so much information and creating new experiences so often that more of that information is being stored as an individual moment, and not part of a collective period of similar experiences. 

Though the structural factors of our brain influence us regardless of the modern age, it is undeniable that technology has changed the way that we experience time in a way that goes beyond the biological, and not for the better. 

The costs of convenience and modernity, and the manipulation of it for political gain, coupled with the side effects of growing up, have changed the way we feel the passage of time. Especially for those just entering adulthood, when schedules become more of a structured routine and the final stages of brain development begin, the changes in perception of time can create the feeling that life has become a constant sprint and you’re falling behind. It’s a game of never-ending catch-up that feels like an isolated event. 

It is not as isolated as it feels. The good news and the bad news is that it is a phenomenon that has swept across the world. The changes that come with aging are simply a sign that you have arrived. The changes that come with technology are tied up with the privileges of modernity but are not insurmountable if understood to be a shared experience, not an isolated event of being caught unprepared for life; the harmful effects of manipulation can be resisted if a conscious awareness of them is cultivated. 

Life has become a hundred meter dash, and the tactics driving modern technology have fired the starting gun.

Haley Joseph would like to note that time doesn’t just fly when you’re having fun, it flies by all the other times, too.