Making Time

Dec 18, 2018 2:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

By the early 14th century…in textile manufacturing towns like Ypres… workers found themselves regulated not by the flow of activity or the seasons but by a new kind of time – abstract, linear, repetitive… work time was measured by the town’s bells, which rang at the beginning and end of each shift.
—Ray Patel, Jason Moore, “The True Cost of Cheap Food,” The Guardian, 8 May 2018.

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

The Industrialization of Time


Seconds, minutes and hours have not always imposed a regulatory tyranny over us. Time as precise measurement was invented and refined in line with industrialization; delineation increased to control and increase productivity. These processes radically altered the way in which many lives were lived, severing the relationship with the rhythms of nature. Agriculture responded to the seasons, and the rising and falling of the sun. There was no need for greater precision. Harvest time was defined by observation. In contrast, precise measurement shapes our reality.

Seconds, minutes and hours have not always imposed a regulatory tyranny over us. Time as precise measurement was invented and refined in line with industrialization; delineation increased to control and increase productivity. These processes radically altered the way in which many lives were lived, severing the relationship with the rhythms of nature. Agriculture responded to the seasons, and the rising and falling of the sun. There was no need for greater precision. Harvest time was defined by observation. In contrast, precise measurement shapes our reality.

The impact of regulation on the lives of individuals varies, of course, according to class, wealth and status. The idea of the “leisure class” identifies privileged groups, free from temporal and productive imperatives. This reflects some ambiguity connected to the concept of leisure which, if enjoyed to a perceived excess (as defined by social convention), is considered feckless and irresponsible.

The reinvention of time had a beneficial consequence in that it separated work from leisure. There was a biblical precedent:

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.

The idea of Sabbath as a day of rest in conjunction with dedicated holy days marked by religious observance enabled some to enjoy respite from labor.

Towards the end of the 19th century, in both the UK and the USA, pressure from workers’ associations used the distinction between work time and free time to agitate for secular holidays. The term “vacation” in the USA establishes a distinction from religious contexts, whereas in British usage the notion of holidays retains connection to origins.

The progressive expansion of vacation space has led to the development of a global tourism industry and the personalization of time. The notion of “my time" distinguishes what is owed to the company in return for payment (and is regulated by them) from what belongs to the individual.

Leisure time was radically extended in the 19th century as artificial light increasingly transformed dark and dangerous spaces into relatively safe areas in which leisure could be prolonged. As students enjoy a Saturday night out in London, Florence or Sydney, they are unlikely to be conscious of the fact that they are benefitting from two inventions that transformed human reality: electricity and time.

The history of time is not a common topic in education abroad, but it encapsulates radical alterations in human experience. The separation of time from nature was critical factor in industrialization. The fragmentation of life into ever more precise distinctions serves, for the most part, economic productivity but, paradoxically, has also created the notion of leisure. Above all, time is not an objective reality, but something invented and reinvented into ever narrower distinctions. There is, I am told, something called a Nano-second (one thousand-millionth of a second) which scientists have created to meet some mysterious, worrying objective.

Higher Education and Time

The relativity of time might easily be demonstrated to students through their experience in academia. There is a regulatory device called a timetable which artificially structures the day. The student year in the USA is constructed by semesters or quarters, according to assumptions about what best serves education. Credits are defined by hours creating a tenuous relationship between time and knowledge (not a universal convention).

There may be odd continuities between nature and time. In Europe and the USA, the academic year commonly starts somewhere towards the end of summer. This reflects the historical need for young people to help with the harvest (a rather redundant obligation).

The development and redevelopment of time is in microcosm reflected in the academic context. It demonstrates that time is not an absolute but is malleable and manipulated to meet variable institutional objectives.

Working Time

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
—George Orwell, 1984

The times they are a- changin’
—Bob Dylan

Fluidity of definition and structure is further illustrated by the duration of the “working day” which, since the later 19th century, has been contested. The working day has never been defined by workers but by employers who, for the most part, have considered it in their interests to keep it as long as possible so as to maximize productivity and profit. Trades Unions and workers’ associations have, in contrast, viewed the reduction of the working day as a critical objective aimed at improving the health and happiness of the employed.

Economics and politics have shaped the tension between the perceived interest of employers and the employed. Since the 19th century, the working day has progressively shortened in many contexts. The link between time and productivity may also be further altered by the increasing impact of technology in some working environments.

The concept of retirement establishes another dimension to the distinction between working time and leisure time. The retirement age is as contested and fluid as the length of the working day, but it has had an impact upon patterns of labor that go beyond individual benefits and rights. It establishes the principle that there are reasonable and ethical limits to how long an individual may be required to work, defined by age. By extension, this has been applied to the other end of the age spectrum to establish the concept of child labor as morally and legally unacceptable. The idea of a working life, therefore, has a beginning and end which, at least theoretically, establishes an ethical standard for employment.

The concept of retirement has also generated a positive version of old age which contrasts, profoundly, with that envisaged by Shakespeare:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion, —
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Instead, the last phase of life has been redefined as a period of productive and pleasant possibilities: leisure, ease, and freedom from the tyranny of time.

The construction of time has also enabled the delineation of ages and generations with increasing precision. We have created distinctions such as childhood, adolescence, teenagers, middle-age, old, and have also invented generations: X, Y, Z, Millennials. The language of time establishes generalized categorizations based on assumed difference.

Global Time: A Colonial Legacy

Global Time is measured in one way or another in relation to Greenwich Mean Time in South London. The location has little to do with science. In 1884, at the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C., Greenwich was selected as “a standard of time reckoning throughout the world.” There was resistance initially from Berlin and Washington (among others). France, huffily, used Paris as their meridian until 1911.

The choice was political, reflecting the global power wielded by the British Empire. As symbolic assertions of national self-determination, dissident nations have chosen to deviate from Greenwich Mean Time: for example, independent India by 30 minutes and Venezuela in 2007.

The relativity of global time reflects, of course, the obvious fact that night and day are not the same everywhere. Alignment with nature is inevitable. That said, “summer time,” while apparently connected to the seasons, is applied variously to save energy, increase productivity, improve environments. The idea of a flexible summer time, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, illustrates precisely the fact that time is an invention sometimes contested on political and economic grounds, driven by motivations that rarely have much to do with nature, but everything to do with control and regulation.

The Morality of Time

Some notions of time carry embedded moral, ethical or social judgements. Reliability signifies punctuality as well as a trustworthy character. It is also (within variably acceptable boundaries) a measure of politeness.

We use language that makes character assessments related to time. The concept of “wasting time” may designate a feckless idler, while “giving time” suggests the generosity of a philanthropic soul. If someone makes “good use of time” the implication is that they are productive, perhaps creative and civic-minded. We also make fine distinctions: “on time” is commendable whilst “in time”, often with an explicit or implicit “just”, suggests a critical view.

The language we use in relation to time is not ethically or emotionally neutral. Time is not only used to structure our lives; it is used to judge the behavior of others.

In a more obvious way, obedience to religious times is a measure of commitment to faith. Traditional Christianity uses temporal words to describe prescribed periods of prayer (Matins – morning, Vespers – evening). In Islam, Salah Time defines the obligation to pray daily at 5 pre-determined points. Almost every religion creates a comparable pattern of expected adherence. In short, time is related to a series of religious and ethical structures.

Conclusion: Time and the Environment

Time is not a regulatory system that exists independently from human intervention. We function in time and space and both are constructed. In international education, we are very aware of the manner in which space has been progressively reduced virtually and physically. Students exploring alternative spaces may be less explicitly aware of the significance of constructed time. The invention of time has redefined environments in critical ways with implications for, among many other things: history, economics, politics, customs, morality, ethics, behavior, freedom, and justice.

Time shapes and continues to reshape experience. We may see ourselves as victims of the tyranny of time, regulated by demands of capitalism. Conversely, we benefit from the distinction between work and leisure which has created the notion of “free time” and enhanced the potential for pleasure.

The idea of time should extend to how we consider the places in which we live and study. They consist of a number of elements: the natural world; man-made constructions (such as cities); the air we breathe; the people we encounter; habits and customs; and, of equal significance, time. These are collectively what we call the environment.

“What’s the time?” is a commonplace question. “What time?” and “Whose time?” are questions we might ask as we seek better to understand the ways in which we have invented this world.

Thanks Mike!

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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Topics: International Education, Study Abroad, History Abroad