The modern conception of time has undergone its own evolution – being neither an organic or apolitical force. It reflects a well-defined ideology that draws its origins from the pursuit of a technological superiority and undisputed efficiency, fostered by the development of the second Industrial Revolution in the West.
The Tyranny of Time
Nature operates on its own timelines, rhythms and cycles, encoded in our biological and ecological clocks. The medieval farmer did not think of time as an abstract concept separate from the Earth: the cows were milked when they needed milking and crops were harvested during harvest season. Anyone who tried to impose an external schedule, for example by doing a month’s worth of milking in a single day, or trying to make harvest time come sooner – would have faced the lunacy and futility of their efforts.
While there were many existential pressures, the exponential increase of yield maximisation was not one of them. It was appreciated that finite resources operate on infinite cycles: there would always be another milking and another harvest, and it was absurd to strap this never-ending process to a race towards some hypothetical moment of completion.
In task-orientation over time-orientation, the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than being lined up against a pre-determined framework. This is the difference between ‘clocking in and clocking out’ by being paid per hour, or working on open projects that enable enhanced flexibility – inherently producing different results. This often better aligns with the emergent processes unfolding in the natural environment.
By nature of being both seasonal and cyclical, natural timelines are often less uniform but more forgiving than the digital clock. Things happen when the time is right, rather than as a result of externally imposed demands. The enjoyment of heading into nature for a ‘time out’ is a return to our roots.
Time in Britain was not always uniform, but the coming of the railways required a national time to be adopted in the 19th Century and its noose has tightened ever since, with further more precise and widespread measures of Industrial Time becoming attached to everything from mobile phones to fridges.
It was at the International Meridian Conference of 1884, that 41 delegates from 25 countries met in Washington and signed a seven-point resolution stating that the meridian passing through Greenwich was the zero meridian, and established a global system of time-keeping to define modern time.
Today, it feels natural for us to have a global system of time-keeping in which 24 time zones encompass the globe starting from the Greenwich meridian, and human history inevitably describes us as born timekeepers: whether it’s by natural phenomena or via artificial instruments, such as obelisks, sundials, or water clocks – we’ve always built systems to regulate and measure our activities.
In the ancient era, time was marked by the change of the seasons or by other cyclical natural phenomena, such as the flooding of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians. Or, for religions like Islam, where prayer times mark the day. The times of antiquity, however, were inextricably linked to the local scale, whereas what we have now is a global standard – with all its associated opportunities and trade-offs.
Philosopher Michel Foucault recognised that the control of time is fundamental to disciplinary power and governing techniques, as defining a new timekeeping system grants invasive control over the population and also fosters the image of unity and territorial cohesion, thus strengthening the national identity, as well as marking a clear change of pace with respect to the past.
To illustrate a point, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus designed a floral clock based on flower hours, so that time was portrayed by the opening and closing of different flowers from the Sow Thistle (5am to 12pm) to the Iceland Poppy (closing at 7pm). In relation to this, the term ‘scientist’ wasn’t invented until around 1834, and was initially used as a derogatory term, referring to those natural philosophers who it was felt had become overly specialised, in the deeper pursuit of just a few reductionist silos.
Tao Te Timing
The Tao Te Ching, believed to have been written by the sage Lao Tzu in the 6th Century BCE, is among the most widely translated texts in existence. Its ambiguous ancient wisdom has inspired an array of modern phenomena, being used as a metaphor to explain all kinds of concepts.
In literature on organisational behaviour, it is often used to highlight the difference between a conventionally centralised top-down approach motivated by linear progression and pay, and an open grass-roots approach inspired by empowerment, passions and purpose.
Humans have always reflected on the concept of time and its implications, from both a cognitive and a behavioural perspective. As the early Christian theologian Saint Augustine wrote: “we know very well what time is, we live it and experience it continuously, but if someone asked us to explain what it is, we would not know how to do so effectively.”
In areas of the brain that seem to function as temporal markers, this specific type of time describes a subjective, personal, intimate time, which is quite distinct from the concept that governs our societies. Reaffirming one’s identity through the definition of one’s own time becomes – in the words of researcher and writer Ruth Ingram, a psychological tool for independence.
However, this tool risks being subversive and, according to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2018, there has been at least one case in which China imprisoned an Uyghur man because he set his watch behind Beijing Time. All of China is in a single time zone, the Beijing Standard Time, even though it covers an area that is approximately the size of the United States of America, which by contrast has six different time zones.
In this sense, the invention of modern time offers the opportunity to reflect on the meaning and influence of technological change as a whole. Modern time is not limited to a scientific or economic lens, but is an essential tool for the spread of Western doctrine, which seeks to impose its concepts of uniformity and progress on the rest of the world, even under the guise of a helping clock hand and wrist watches.
Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery describes in his novel, Laziness in the Fertile Valley, the psychological burden of the introduction of an alien time, compared to the one that was observed in Egypt before the arrival of the British.
The British wanted to transform Egypt into a colony that was efficient and synchronised, worshipping the demands of its rulers. Therefore they changed the local calendar and introduced the concept of modern time. Oppressed and enraged by the principles of this action, the only solution that remained was to sleep all day.
Thus defines the only solemn protest that remains for those who seek to oppose the tyranny of modern time – activism through inaction.