Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Time Became Money

I am doing research for the new book and reading the most amazing material on the emergence of modern time consciousness in Europe of the Middle Ages. The key development was, of course, the distribution of public clocks. The beginning was the town square - the bell tower. Then, as the centuries progress, clocks make their way into manufacturing institutions and homes and finally onto our bodies in the form of pocket watches. The transition was slow but with it came a sweeping, radical and all encompassing re-imagining of time that has accelerated into the crazed life-in-15-minute-intervals human universe we inhabit today.

Perhaps the most important transition in all of this was the lifting of time from the natural cycles of daylight and human or animal work/exhaustion. In its place came an abstract time, the hour was a unit devoid of context and with this stripping of embodied duration came the ability to turn time into a commodity. Time could become money in a simple equation that equated two abstract de-contextualised units (duration and currency). So began wage slaving and the world, our world, has never been the same. Time economies emerged and with it a wave of "isms": Taylorism; Marxism; Existentialism (no, I don't think the last one is a stretch).

Now here comes the interesting point - that same abstracted time was the very lifeblood that allowed the new science of Newton, Laplace and others to recreate both heaven and Earth in the image of a powerful all-encompassing universal physics. The time of celestial mechanics and the time of the mill worker were the same - both new, both invented, both transformative.

Human invention and human discovery. Cultural artifacts and scientific truth. How do these overlap? Does one always lead the other or can they change places like horses on the track?

Please feel free to share this column with others but please cite the source. These things take work after all.
Thank you.