Casinos have been on my mind a lot lately, although I’m not a gambler. What I keep thinking about is the way that they’re designed to make patrons lose track of time. The absence of clocks and windows is purposeful. If all is going well—at least from the house’s point of view—guests can place bets from 4:00 in the afternoon until 4:00 in the morning and hardly notice the hours pass. The goal, of course, is to maximize profits. The longer you’re in there, the more chances they have to take your money.
More and more, I wonder if we’re all starting to exist in a version of casino-time, where one hour bleeds into the next with little discernible difference. Light pollution is growing in both scale and brightness every year, giving the nighttime an artificial glow. Inside our houses, we bask in a different kind of artificial light, with smartphones and tablets constantly by our sides. Backlit screens, a twenty-four-hour news cycle, and features like AutoPlay and infinite scrolling make it easy to lose sense of time. In fact, technology and social media companies deliberately employ casino-like tactics in order to make websites and applications as addictive as possible. It’s not an accident that you can intend to look up one headline, or one video on YouTube, and before you know it, discover that you’ve consumed a dozen more. Meanwhile, the payoff of what we encounter online—whether it’s the dopamine hit of a well received Instagram post, or horror at the latest bad news—tends to be fleeting. So we keep scrolling down, or hitting refresh, like someone sitting glassy-eyed before a slot machine.
The net effect of such trends can be to trap us in a kind of endless, lonely, and anxious present. And a diminished sense of time, I worry, could lead to a diminished sense of hope. The two things—time and hope—are intimately connected in Julie Otsuka’s novel When the Emperor Was Divine, about a Japanese-American family taken from their home in Berkeley, California, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The husband is sent to a federal prison, and his wife and two children to an internment camp in the Utah desert. Almost immediately upon reaching the camp, the mother—who, along with the other family members, is unnamed—begins to let go, first of time, and then of any agency or ability to conceive of a better future. She stops winding her watch and loses track of the days. Time begins to seem distorted, stretched out and blurry. “Who was winning the war? Who was losing? The mother no longer wanted to know,” Otsuka writes. “She no longer read the paper or listened to the bulletins on the radio. ‘Tell me when it’s over,’ she said.”
In all honesty, I sometimes feel the same temptation to despair, especially after reading the news for too long. It isn’t easy to exist in an endless, anxious present.