Culture

Beyond The Punch-Clock Life: The Tyranny Of Modern Time II

Students of time, as well as history. i i

hide captionStudents of time, as well as history.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Students of time, as well as history.

Students of time, as well as history.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

What's your first memory of being late? Odds are it had something to do with school. For most of us school was our first instruction in time behavior, whether it was rushing out the door to catch the bus or rushing through the hallways to beat the bell. While not a subject explicitly on your school schedule, time management was a central lesson in the school experience.

What we learned at school was not the cosmic time of God or physics. It was a particular version of time — a time-logic — that is particular to our culture and our history. As we explored in the first of this four-post series (based on my new book, About Time) there have been other times and other time-logics in history. But the constellation of behaviors, attitudes and values that come with the time you learned now rule over most of the planet.

For more than a century this "modern time" has been fantastically useful, creating unimagined wealth and opportunity. Now, however, it has run its course. The time-logic that served our grandparents so well has pushed us all too hard and too far. We are reaching the limits of what can be squeezed out of a day from people and what can be squeezed out of the planet by our global culture.

So when did our "modern" time begin? Despite recent digital innovations, at its root our time remains an invention of industry. Its purest form came through the efforts of Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the 19th century inventor of "scientific time management." It was Taylor who identified efficiency as the ultimate goal of modern time behavior, something Jeremy Rifkin wrote about in his book Time Wars.

"Efficiency is both a value and a method. As a value, efficiency becomes the social norm for how all human time should be used. As a method, efficiency becomes the best way to use time to advance the goal of material progress."

With a stopwatch as his weapon, Taylor fought to show how huge production increases could be won when each "work process" was broken down into simple elements and streamlined. Taylorism, as it became known, swept through the industrial world from Detroit to Dusseldorf, from Topeka to Tokyo. Taylorism became the norm because, fundamentally, Taylor was right. Production could be increased through scientific study, management and analysis. From the making of cars to the mining of minerals, efficiency as an ultimate time value lifted many people to new levels of wealth and leisure. It certainly seemed like a good idea — until now.

There are two principle reasons why the time-logic we were trained to live by must come to an end. The first rises from a truth never considered when efficiency first became the ultimate temporal value. While the possibility of efficiency gains seemingly never end, production exists in a real world with real limits.

More efficient forestation means running through forests faster. More efficient fishing methods means running through natural fishing stocks faster. Faster production of everything means more of everything — including more unwanted waste material (like greenhouse gases). And while efficiency can lead to other outcomes, such as the streamlined production of higher quality goods (rather than just more goods), over the last century our modern time-logic has led to the over consumption of finite planetary resources.

The recognition of limits stands as the global culture's strongest imperative to move beyond its current time-logic.

But on the level of the individual, the imperative to change emanates from a different source. As individuals, the desire to build a new time springs from our deeply felt need to reclaim value and balance in our lives.

There are statistics enough to show how the acceleration of life under modern time has stressed our personal ecosystems of family, friends and community. Americans spend more time at work, take fewer, shorter vacations and report an increased sense that they are unable to complete the tasks given to them. As far back as decade ago, more than half of Americans reported spending significant fractions of their workweek moving at an "intense" pace against "tight deadlines." I doubt things have gotten better since then.

Our stress inducing time-logic leaves its imprint across all of our daily experiences. If your are searching for one nearly universal embodiment of the phenomenon, you need look no further than the traffic on your commute. By one estimate, the 75 largest metropolitan areas experience at least 3.6 billion vehicle-hours of delay every year. That is so much "wasted time" in cars that no amount of books-on-tape can make it whole.

Each day, every day, Americans are queuing onto freeways hoping for the best and praying against the worst. The frustration and hopelessness we can feel even in short traffic jams is indicative of the constant struggle to do more in less time. When our morning commute fails to hit its expected mark then, like dominoes, the time-logic of tightly stacked to-dos and appointments topples, leaving us drained before the day even begins.

The value of efficiency we learned as children drives the expectation that we can "time-manage" our way out of impossibly overbooked schedules. The myth of multitasking has only compounded this dilemma, taking efficiency to new imaginary limits where we can somehow duplicate ourselves and get twice as much done.

The truth is that we have limits.

True connections between family, friends and colleagues can not be compressed down to tightly scheduled "quality time." The relentless logic of efficiency can unintentionally strip the most valued qualities of human life just as easily as it strips forests. In both instances what is left has been denuded and made barren.

The irony inherent in this dilemma is how outmoded this punch-clock rigidity has already become. Fifty years ago people showed up on time to work because they lived in a manufacturing economy that demanded it. The assembly line turned on at 8 a.m., so that is when you got to the factory.

Today, in the United States, the punch-clock economy has faded. Why, then, are we still holding on to its time-logic? In spite of all their promise, why have digital technologies only amplified the relentless logic of Taylorism?

The answer to that question takes us into surprising territory, where our intimate experiences of lived time are braided with culture's grandest visions of cosmological time. Through that unexpected connection, the trajectories by which time-logics live and die will become clear.

But that is another story and will have to wait for another time (say, next Tuesday).


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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