Monica L. Smith


On her book A Prehistory of Ordinary People

Cover Interview of January 30, 2011

A close-up

Today, the reading experience has been expanded to different formats and time frames.  So I have divided each chapter into smaller sections that make a particular point about some aspect of food, objects, and energy investment.

Readers who might have a few minutes at the end of the day can dip into this book at nearly any point and encounter a brief, interesting story about the connection between ancient and modern culture.

The themes of the book should enable a reader to make sense of her or his own busy life—there is little about human cognition that is unique to the modern world, and multitasking isn’t a modern curse but something that has been with our species for millennia.

People experience the stop-and-start of multitasking at many different levels and scales of time.  Cooking and eating are great examples of multitasking as a sequence of changes in activities and ingredients.  In cooking, you might change the menu when you find that you don’t have a particular ingredient, or you might change the cooking method for a particular meal when you’ve been interrupted by a phone call or other unexpected event.  Time is a particularly flexible component of the culinary repertoire, and its value is elastic: if you’re very short on time, you might not even heat up those leftovers to eat them; if you’re trying to impress a date with your cooking, you’ll take extra time to make sure that it all turns out just right.

The long term of a lifespan also is a continual series of changes, new information, and discoveries.  In the course of your life, you might have interrupted your college education for family reasons or economic reasons, or even simple lack of interest at the time.  After some years in the working world, the opportunity to return to formal education might again come up.  But now your choice as to which courses to take would not be the same as that of your younger undergraduate days—your focus now would reflect the goals and experiences that you acquired during your time away from school.

A perception of the passage of time isn’t a generic phenomenon but one that is highly individualized.  People the world over are not the same from youth to middle age to retirement; they grow, they acquire or lose skills, and they adapt their energy output to their understandings of the value of that investment.