Why a billion seconds?
It begins with a heartbeat, the very first sound we hear. As we knit together in our mother’s womb, our hearts form within just a few weeks. That tiny organ beats hundreds of times a minute. We are intimately familiar with its sound.
Our mother’s heartbeat was the the first thing we came to recognize, the first constant, its beat creating time, taking the eternal warm darkness of the womb and dividing it into discrete units: lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. An anxious baby often can be soothed by placing its head against its mother’s chest, where it will be reminded of the the reassuring rhythm of her heartbeat.
Adults have heart rates averaging 70 beats per minute. A second is a bit more than a heartbeat, a heartbeat is not quite a second. Time, which seems external to us (and, as we grow older, inimical), is actually tied to the primary experience of our bodies. Man is the measure of all things, and our beating heart measures the seconds, minutes, hours and days of a lifetime.
From the gigantic Blue Whale to tiny Etruscan shrew, all mammals have hearts similar to ours, differing only in how frequently they beat. Smaller animals lose heat faster than bigger ones, so the heart must beat faster to keep the warmth circulating. A hamster’s heart flutters 450 times a minute – nearly seven times ours – while a whale gets by with a paltry 20 beats per minute.
Yet all mammals, great and small, all seem to be granted the same number of heartbeats. From birth to death, mouse, man and moose all have an allotment of a billion beats – give or take. A cat, whose heart beats 150 times a minute, lives on average fifteen years – just over a billion heartbeats. An elephant, at 30 beats per minute, lives for seventy. It’s not that our hearts fail after a billion beats; that’s simply when mammal bodies wear out, overcome by life’s battles.
Those of you good at math have probably noted that the human lifespan – about eighty years throughout the developed world – doesn’t fall into this pattern. We get almost three billion heartbeats. That’s a very recent thing. Until we started to work out the germ theory of disease, one hundred and fifty years ago, the average human lifespan had never been more than thirty-five years, and often much less. That’s just a bit over a billion heartbeats.
Thirty-one years, eight months, eight days, one hour and forty-two minutes make up a billion seconds. Thanks to modern medicine, almost all of us will live two billion seconds, and an increasing number will see all of a third billion. Longevity scientists believe that four billion seconds – more than 120 years – is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Generations once came thick and fast – every twenty years. As people live longer and grow more affluent, the span between generations has lengthened. Women in the developed world now have their first child while in their early 30s. A generation has become a billion seconds.
These billion-second intervals provide markers for our passage through life. The first billion seconds encompass childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. The second billion seconds represent full adulthood, parenting, and the high points of a career. The final billion seconds see us move into a gradual retirement, increasing senescence and eventual death.
Cultures develop along similar lines. Something is being born and something matures, even as something else passes away. The march of the generations is not simply a passage of bodies, but the flow of ideas which we operate within, the assumptions and truisms which make up our world views. New ideas are born, have their hour in the sun, then fade from memory.
These billion seconds lie both before us and behind us. A billion seconds ago, IBM released its PC, and we began the march into a civilization where computing has become ubiquitous, a world in which information both fuels and shapes our lives. That revolution has entered its full adulthood, a mature industry still bright with potential, but with a growing sense of its limits.
Within the billion seconds (spanning 1995 – 2026) we are witnesses to the birth of a connected species, the emergence of something that little more than a hundred years ago would have been confused with telepathy. This bright childhood has become a chaotic and anxious adolescence, as we test our limits against the powers which both nurture and restrain us.
Finally, the post-war culture of ‘big is beautiful’ industrialization, based on models of centralized control, winds toward its end, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Each of us lives in these three cultures: the connected culture being born, the computer culture now thriving, and the centralized culture passing from the scene. There is no way to entirely inhabit one of these cultures to the exclusion of the others, any more than we could choose to ignore a few of our limbs. We belong to all of them. As the new shoves its way into prominence, we lose the familiar touch of the old, witnessing an entire world view becoming increasingly feeble as it heads toward an eventual end, and before we have any clear idea of what will replace it.
A billion seconds encompasses enough time to utterly transform the world.