Though it doesn’t get out of my closet much these days, my sextant was once an extremely well-traveled device. Made up of little more than a handheld telescope attached to a couple of small mirrors and a metal bar curved to form one-sixth of a circle, the sextant is deceptively simple in design and, in the right hands, incredibly useful in practice. The uncle who gave it to me used it in the early 1980s to find his way across the 2,800 nautical miles that separate San Diego from French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands. He was a notoriously light traveler, and the only thing he brought back in addition to the sextant was a tan so deep it lasted for decades.
His attachment to the sextant is understandable. By using it to measure the angle from his sailboat to the sun, he was able to plot his location on a map and determine the progress he had made across the featureless ocean. It made the difference between his finding safe harbor on a flyspeck group of islands in the middle of the South Pacific and casting about in a seemingly infinite sea. For my uncle and the long line of mariners, explorers, merchants and traders who preceded him, location was life. Entire empires were built on the back of the sextant.
But the sextant never made the leap into the digital world. Now it’s relegated to museum display cases (and my closet). Its demise isn’t about digital replacing analog, though. It’s about the ascendance of “when” over “where.”
The clock, after all, has made an almost seamless transition into digital ubiquity. The time is a permanent fixture on my computer display. It’s the first thing I see when I unlock my smartphone. It’s the last thing I see at night when I set my alarm. While our ancestors might have been vigilant about location, as a means of survival we’re hyperaware of timelines. A call in two minutes, a meeting in 16. What can we squeeze into the tiny unscheduled frames?
If you ask Google Maps about a voyage like my uncle’s, the first thing it will tell you is the amount of time it takes to fly between San Diego and the Marquesas. If you want the distance, you have to search for it. When someone buys something from Amazon, the most prominent information provided after completing the order is an estimate of when the package will arrive. The site of distribution center is secondary. Specific information about the location of the factory is almost never included. Time is now the foundation of empires.
As a regular traveler through these empires of time, I’ve learned to speak my own particular dialect regarding the concept of “when.” I might be in San Francisco one day and New York the next, but my “when” doesn’t necessarily shift accordingly. Instead, time for me is a prism, with its beams shooting toward where my clients await my deliverables—I’m the factory. I’m the distribution center.
That also means my start of day sometimes has little to do with when the sun rises outside my window. I’ve interviewed an Italy-based AI expert at 4:30 a.m. local time. I’ve brainstormed ideas with team members in London almost as early.
But on the occasions when my life is aligned more perfectly with daylight hours, I sometimes rummage through the closet, dust off the sextant, and practice plotting my location by measuring the angle of the sun in the sky. I even daydream about using it to navigate a sailboat around the South Pacific.
Maybe someday I’ll turn that fantasy into a reality… when I find the time.