Vladimir Kaminer's insight: Tomorrow is yesterday

When you get run over although nothing is real, time-use managers can’t manage their own time, and we go around in circles on the dial of a watch, there’s only one thing left to do: drive a decent car. Preferably two at once. By yourself. In a super super super test.
Text Wladimir Kaminer
Photo David Breun

I

We humans tend to see everything as an illusion. If there’s something we can’t grasp, we simply write it off as an illusion. Time is an illusion, Albert Einstein is alleged to have said. He also thought reality was an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Other scientists endorsed his idea. A mathematics professor who was traveling in America at the same time as Einstein performed some life-threatening experiments just to prove this theory. He rode through New York City on a bicycle – blindfolded. If reality really was just an illusion, the professor thought, then nothing would happen to him. Assiduously, he pedaled along, training for the eternal life in the middle of rush hour on Broadway, the cars honking like mad, but nothing happened to him.

Later, the professor moved to London, crossed the street on foot, not blindfolded, and was hit by a car. As is well known, the cars in London all come from the wrong direction, our professor had first looked to the left instead of to the right, and it was all over for him. His unforeseen death in no way proves that reality is not an illusion. At most, it proves that God, should he exist, has a pretty strange sense of humor.

People have a hard time with things they can’t grasp, things that can’t be held in their hands, put in their pockets or hoarded.

Like time, for example.

Until yesterday, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as time-use researchers, people who devote themselves professionally to the management of time. In this new academic discipline, there are two factions, each of which claims to have the right way of dealing with time. One faction is working on perfecting time management, trying to plan a routine schedule for a day or a week so that people use their hours efficiently and get as much done as possible in as short a time as possible. The other faction of time-use researchers has nothing but disdain for this kind of time management, saying that life is too short to manage it.

These time-use researchers fundamentally doubt the benefits of punctuality, they dismiss time-saving measures as nonsense and want to live according to an inner clock, in harmony with nature. If you plan everything precisely, you may have had a quick breakfast, but you might be missing out on the essential, the unforeseen, the miracle of life that reveals to you a new meaning of your existence. Real life is not a race, it is not a contest to see who can get there faster, it is full of wonder and cannot be planned.

I suspect that these two groups of time-use managers, where the former plan their appointments precisely and the latter condemn all punctuality, can never actually meet. A time-use congress would therefore be impossible.

II

One thing is certain: time is an outgoing prop that cannot be retrieved. We spend just around four thousand weeks here on earth, half of them asleep or in a kind of twilight of consciousness. What remains doesn’t sound like a long, fulfilling life, but more like a short vacation. Four Thousand Weeks is also the title of a very popular bit of reading by Oliver Burkeman, who harshly criticizes the concept of time management. All in all, however, if you google “time-use researchers”, they are a vanishing minority in comparison to watchmakers. Google delivers about four ­thousand hits for “watchmaker” to every one “time-use researcher”. Watchmakers are busy creating devices to measure time (which is an illusion), devices that can be ugly or beautiful, small or large, with arrows or with numbers. While time-use researchers argue about the right way to use time, watchmakers make us realize how fast it passes by.

Watchmakers (and clockmakers) want to discipline us, they remind us what to do and when to do it, but their time is constantly running in circles and could come to a halt at any second. Time is a constant threat, it is perpetually “not quite”, “around about” or “shortly before”, and the hands, arrows and numbers have a menacing quality, as if the watchmakers were carrying a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment. The hands permanently pull us toward tomorrow; we resist, having not really savored yesterday yet, but before we know it, every morning turns into yesterday and we, impaled on the pointer, keep turning with the watch.

To investigate this phenomenon, we took two wonderful cars, a Land Rover and a Jaguar, on countless laps around Potsdamer Platz in Berlin on a crisp autumn morning.

The German capital is trying to keep in step with the times, and the speed at which Berlin is changing is breathtaking. In tune with the zeitgeist, Berlin is making every effort to become an environmentally just, bicycle-friendly, gender-neutral metropolis, a meeting place for millions. This, despite the fact that the old, cozy Berlin was also beautiful; I bet we will miss it in the future. Driving through the city is like traveling through time. We drove around in circles so much until we no longer knew whether tomorrow had just ended or yesterday was about to begin.

Where does the journey through time at the wheel of two cars take our author Wladimir Kaminer and what other insights does he have - besides the realisation that he probably lived his youth in the future? Read all that in ramp #59.


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