Reflections on Aphorisms #71

Aphorism 109

In the city, time becomes visible.

Lewis Mumford

Interpretation

I finished a Great Courses audio-book on the history of common people today, so this aphorism seems particularly applicable to me.

One of the things about people is that we alter the entropy around us. We might temporarily stall it, intentionally hasten it, or even just modulate it, but the effect becomes stronger as we come together.

In a rural village for most of the history of humanity, life remained the same for decades or centuries at a time. People came and went, as did their structures, but the actual lifestyle stayed the same, even as regimes and beliefs changed.

I don’t think the same is true today to the same extent, but mostly because our standards of what constitutes a small settlement have changed. I think of the small town where I would visit my grandmother as a child.

Barring a visitor center, I don’t think that there has been any significant construction since the last time I visited, which was before I was an adult.

There’s no need for it. The population is small, and while the individuals and businesses may change over time the actual buildings themselves do not. The library where I spent so much of my youth remains in the same state it was when I left it last, the grocery store down the street and the hotel across town are still where they were, and will likely be there for the next decade. There’s no stimulus to change the substance of the town.

Admittedly, there were stimuli that could change the environment, but in these cases they were often not human in origin: fires, earthquakes, famines, and the like that displaced people may have changed the landscape, but people would either settle back into the same lifestyle elsewhere or move to a city.

Only where people concentrated did one see a vast amount of differences over time. Cities have a lot of people, and they concentrate resources. Building, especially the luxury of deconstruction and reconstruction, becomes a pastime and then a necessity.

Each person contributes more to the change until the chaos–or conversion of chaos into order–reaches a critical point and things are put into motion.

And just because this works on a macro-scale doesn’t mean it’s absent in smaller examples of life.

Think about how much of your time you spend actually working toward something valuable. If you represented it as a percentage, is it in the double digits? I know that for much of my life mine has been low–perhaps even as low as the single digits during my youth and college years–though it’s gone up quite a bit in my more recent years (teaching has a way of converting your free time into time spent laboring toward a goal, though not always in a way that feels productive).

As you bring that number up, you’ll find it having an increasingly great impact. I read or listen to audio-books for possibly as much as 20% of my waking hours each day. I have learned more this year than I have in my last two years combined, and not for lack of trying.

So push yourself. Do everything you can. Don’t forget to live a little (100% productivity is a great path to burnout), but if something you do has no meaning figure out a way to eradicate it and replace it with something that does.

Resolution

Stop doing worthless things.

Remember that change increases exponentially, not linearly.

Sleep, eat, drink. Then wake up and accomplish something.

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