On time, its uses and abuses

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Only the Maya can claim to have been half as obsessed with time as our industrial civilisation is, and even they only went as far as devising a calendar so accurate it is said to be used by NASA. (This may, however, be a well-known fact; I was unable to find any confirmation of this on their website.) We have clocks and timers everywhere. If you don’t believe me, try counting the various timepieces to be found around your home, including those on or about your person.

Timekeeping devices of one sort or another have a long history, but the mechanical clock dates back to the fourteenth century and was largely the result of too many monks having too much time on their hands. Monks were interested in observing the canonical hours, which were (and are) the timetable of prayer which is at the centre of monastic life. These are really no more than conventions, standardised in such codes as the Rule of St Benedict, with no particular reason to think that God was too concerned about the exact timing. Because in pre-industrial times clocks were expensive to make, they became status symbols as much as anything.

One development is however significant. Prior to the advent of the mechanical clock, not all hours were of the same length. In non-tropical latitudes, this makes complete sense. The Romans, for example, divided the day into twelve equal parts and the night likewise, but how long each twelfth lasted depended on the season. A daylight hour would be appreciably longer in summer than in winter.

If you are making a machine to measure time, however, your life will be much simpler if all the hours are the same length. Simpler for the clock-maker, perhaps, but no so much for its users, for whom the motion of the sun in the sky tends to diverge from the time on the dial. The resulting inconvenience eventually led to the unlovely kludge that is daylight saving time; some idea of the technical difficulties in which this has involved us can be gleaned from the late Erik Naggum’s fine essay “The Long, Painful History of Time.

This trend towards the standardisation of time was, like so many trends, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. If one takes noon to be the point during the day when the sun is at its height, this time will be found to be slightly different in London than it is in, say, Manchester. This fact was never an issue until relatively high-speed transport became available, in the form of the railway. You could set your watch by the station clock when you set out, and it would disagree with the clock at the other end. The need to standardise all these different local times led to the introduction of “railway time” as far back as 1840.

Another fruit of the Industrial Revolution was the introduction of the time-clock. This invention is attributed to an American with the splendid name of Willard Legrand Bundy and was the logical outcome of employers’ need to monitor and control their workers. Modern companies such as Amazon have taken this to quite extreme levels, because they can. Technically they can do it, because the capability now exists, but mostly they can do it because we collectively let them. After all they create jobs, and jobs are good, right?

I’ll be discussing education in a future post, but suffice it to say one of the main things our education is designed to do is to foster an awareness of, if not a fetishistic worship of, clock time. This is because the industrial demands that its workers be good time-keepers, to the point where bad time-keeping is considered a legitimate reason for dismissal. There are of course good practical reasons for this, as I have pointed out elsewhere, but I think there’s more to it.

People outside of industrial culture are not in general that bothered about time. They don’t need to be. This is not because indigenous people are intrinsically lackadaisical, despite the frequent complaints from their colonisers. Even the Romans were comparatively relaxed about it, and they were nothing if not businesslike. It may not be a coincidence that we, who are inside industrial culture, saturate ourselves so thoroughly in time; we wallow in clocks, we adore them, to the point that even tenths or hundredths of a second occur like epochs in our lives.

Why should this be? It seems to me that our worship of clock-time has much in common with our worship of money. Both are abstractions, fictions even, to which we attribute quasi-mystical properties – that they are (in principle, at any rate) infinite, eternal, and the same for all observers – even though they don’t in fact possess them. We sometimes go so far as to equate them, even though this is manifestly absurd.

Benjamin Franklin’s oft-repeated adage that time is money has become a truism without actually being true. (Try buying a hamburger with twenty-five minutes.) What it does manage to do, with admirable succinctness, is to sum up a certain cast of mind which is favoured by our present economic arrangements. For the one situation in which we have to pretend that time and money are interchangeable is paid employment. Payment – what the Americans with refreshing frankness call compensation – is always expressed in terms of money for time. So much an hour, or a week, or a year. We rent ourselves out, and this is considered completely normal.

But empty featureless Newtonian time, rolling smoothly onwards and the same for everyone everywhere, is no longer considered the best model even by physicists. Those of us who are mortal – and that includes the two of us, dear reader – must reckon with a finite extent of the stuff. We may not know how much we have, but it certainly isn’t eternity. There are no overdrafts available.

One fundamental way in which money differs from time is that one can both give and receive money – indeed, that’s pretty much the whole point of it – but one can only give time. Once you have lived a minute of your life, you will never have it again. Time cannot be refunded. Exchanging it for money is therefore not a decision to be taken lightly.

That’s pretty much the deal that industrial society offers us, though. Now it will be objected that everyone has to invest some of their time in obtaining the necessaries of life (well, apart from trustafarians). But there is more flexibility than most people suppose in both the quality and the quantity of that investment. As the old joke runs, very few people on their death-beds wish they had spent more time at the office.

In his provocative essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which subsequently became the basis for a book, the late David Graeber argues that for many people the time they exchange for the necessaries of life is time completely wasted. “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

The bald equation of time with money conceals all this, of course. Nor is this an accident. To my way of thinking, it makes no real sense for the employee to think like this; but it makes much more sense from the point of view of the employer. All they are investing, after all, is money, and money which they expect to recoup. From their perspective, it’s the same as buying any other commodity. You won’t find many employers who put it as starkly as that, because even those who are sociopathic enough to find it acceptable are also usually smart enough to realise that it isn’t a great look for for recruitment.

A clock will tell you a number, really, and nothing more. Time is a far richer notion than that. There are the seasons of the year, and the seasons of our own lives too. There are geological cycles that are unimaginably long to us, and the generations of microbes that are startlingly short. A year means one thing to an oak tree and something else to a mayfly. Ours is not the only perspective.

Time is not a number, still less a unit of currency. No single instant of it is quite like another. It may not seem as if every moment is precious when you’re having root canal work done, or sitting through another pointless meeting, but once it’s gone it’s gone. You probably spent around seven and a half minutes reading this far; I hope you found it worthwhile.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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