Friday, September 4, 2009

Machine Time: Gains and Losses

From Time by Barbara Adam

As it melded into our social relations, decontextualized and disembodied, clock time facilitates an acute present orientation and a sense of distance, disconnection, independence even from the physical world and external influences. When machine-time, which has no consequences, no cause and effect, no accumulation, no irreversibile change, no memory and no purpose, is employed as a synchronizing and organizational tool, an illusionary set of temporal relations are set in motion that become real in their lived consequences. In factories, people become synchronized to the clock-time rhythm to be treated as appendages of the machine. The machine time gets elevated as the norm to which they are expected to perform. Children are educated in accordance with its mechanistic beat. Public life is regulated to its invariable rhythm....

All times are equal under the clock. Time created to human design irrevocably changed the human-time relation. The ultimate transcendent and recalcitrant became malleable and manageable. It yielded to human control. With its aid, moreover, unprecedented rationalization and undreamed of levels of efficiency in productivity and social organization were achieved.

This is the change we are heirs to. So much gained. So much lost. Now, perhaps, we must find some middle way, some sanity in place and duration that sustains and maintains all we are capable of.


  1. Ah - I've spent much time away from the internet this summer (little "mini-retreat" of my own making :)).

    My recent experiences, as well as reading over the last couple of posts have reminded me so potently of one of my all-time favourite quotes:

    "A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man's life as in a book. Haste makes waste, no less in life than in housekeeping. Keep the time, observe the hours of the universe, not of the cars." (Thoreau)

  2. ...and he was only talking about the railroad(!)

    What he would make of our modern relationship with time I can only imagine....

  3. Hi Jayne

    I have also read that "A wise man has few obligations." How different from what my Outlook calender tells me!

  4. Welcome back Jayne!

    In these posts there is a hint of nostalgia for some leisured, unhurried past, not bound by the iron constraints of the linear model for time. An implication that the linear model for time has in some sense enslaved us or deprived us of a deeper appreciation.

    Then I look around me in my home country and see everywhere abject poverty with the resulting grim struggle for survival that has resulted in one of the world's highest homicide rates.

    At its heart there is a simple cause. One persons physical energy can only produce so much output per day and this is not sufficient to raise people out of desperate poverty. The struggle for insufficient resources breaks down social order and we live in daily fear.

    Industrialisation and the efficient use of time (in the more advanced economies) has multiplied one person's output so that the surplus can allow us to enjoy leisure, social order and self actualisation.

    But producing a sufficient surplus mandates the efficient use of time. Every factory worker is bound by this iron law.

    We are the lucky few. Society has reached an implicit consensus whereby some people are allowed to live off the productive surplus and this gives us the leisure to worry about time.

  5. Dear Occasional

    You are right about that nostalgia. Its the "pastoralization" of agraian time. As in "Oh those where the days"

    Thats why I made sure to include her quote about the unprecedented levels of social organization possible with the new time consciousness that emerged via clocks and abstract duration. I don't see it as an either or however. Everyone has gotten into a bind with this change though some have had their materail standard raised to unimagined levels. Do you think that much of the poverty you see is somehow inherent to human life or is it too part of the society that emerged from an industrialization of time?

  6. What do you guys think about equating Being and time? Maybe the way we have reduced time to its countable aspects, we analogously do to Being.

  7. Considering all that we've been talking about on your blog Adam, it's seeming to me that the eternal question is, how does Being get
    "real-ized?" I think this is a question that we share with Being itself.

    I know one of the ways we've distinguished science from religion is that science asks how questions and religion asks why questions. I'm seeing something different now.

    If our profound question is, how does Being get real-ized, I as a religious thinker am also asking the how question, but I am asking a different how. I see the science version of how as, how does this work?; what are the underlying mechanisms of Being. I see the religious version (in my sense of religious) of how as in, how do we manifest Being?, recognizing that Human Being is the one that can manifest being which can contradict Being itself.

    I think both versions of how are necessary and equally profound: Occasional Reporter sites a quintessential predicament that demands of us both versions of how.

  8. Adam you ask if my view of poverty is inherent in human life?
    In my opinion yes. It is because we are self aware, self conscious, reflective animals. This has the consequence that we desire more and strive for more than simple subsistence(self actualisation). To realize this we must produce surpluses to sustain us in our quest for self actualisation. The absence of surplus or inability to produce a surplus to sustain self actualisation is poverty. The problem is made worse by the fact that a class soon arises (Jared Diamond's Kleptocracy) that makes it their mission to appropriate productive surpluses and use it to their own advantage.

  9. Occasional, you get at the crux of the biscuit as Adam would say, when it comes to the challenge of developing ourselves as a sustainable civilization. The matrix of self-actuali(s)ation is determined by culture and the predominate cultural matrix guiding self-actualization is material accumulation.

    Until we can change the cultural matrix, for what constitutes substantial human living, we will struggle at creating sustainability.

    As a theological thinker, I would say that our current matrix is a sign of a radical estrangement from life that we innately feel but don't know how to solve. And our collective cooperation in forming a culture, that bases the pathway to true human being on something that lacks such power, is a prime example of idolotry.

  10. @Mike I think equating Being and Time may capture the essential truth that our unfolding in time is the core fact of existence. Of course, as I am sure you know, Being and Time is the theme and title of Martin Heidegger's famous and famously opaque tome. I am a big fan of what Heidegger was trying to accomplish (even if I am not much of a fan of the man himself). The emphasis on the way in which human being (there-being in Heidegger's words) unfolds or dis-covers itself as time, or through time, is the essence of a shift away from some platonic ideal as the focus of philosophical inquiry.

  11. @occasional I agree. I have read that most hunter-gather societies end up being quite egailitarian but that once a village gets to have more than a few hundred people and agriculture allows surpluses to accrue then some form of "class" division develops. Someone ends up commanding the bulk of the surplus while others end up having to maintain it: Ruler, Military, Business, Farmer. That seems to be a universal structure in city building cultures. While I doubt true equality will ever be obtained I hope that different kind of social organizations may be possible that can this and allow for far greater degrees of balance.

  12. @mike and occasional. So the point here is this balance between material acculmulation in the sense of having "enough" and deepening of "self in context" (drawing from its inspirations in art, science and spiritual life).

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