An attempt at a temporal diagnosis of history

I will now attempt to outline a history of time that can identify key factors in the acceleration of the speed of society. This may help to clarify the grounds on which we can talk about this acceleration of time. I will take my starting point in the historical division offered by Robert Hassan in his book Empires of Speed: Time and the Acceleration of Politics and Society. Hassan argues that societal relationships to time have changed significantly over the past three hundred years. He sets out two different phases based on two technological innovations: the clock and information and communication technologies (ICT). These technologies can be said to encapsulate two different historical developments whereby “technologically based forms of time (clock and computer) [...] dominate other forms of time reckoning and occlude other ways of thinking about time” (Hassan 2009a p. 3. Quote slightly modified.). The division, whose different characteristics I will elaborate below is: 1) The first temporal Empire (clock time); and 2) The second temporal Empire (ICT/network time).

But although technology is an important factor in determining a certain historical period’s understanding of time, it is not the only one. According to Hassan, in the same way that a certain understanding of time forms the basis for specific actions, one can account for a particular period’s temporal meta-context by examining its dominant forms of time, which are “mediated through politics, through the logic of capitalism, and through the dogmas of science and technology” (Hassan 2009a p. 12). In other words, a given era’s temporal meta-context arises from that era’s worldview and modes of production. However, there is an important reason why Hassan points out precisely the two technologies mentioned above. They represent two essentially different structurings of time: on the one hand, what might be called ’the mathematical grid’, and on the other, what might be called ’empty time’. In the following sections I will attempt to show how these modes of time operate.

Naturally, the invention of the clock did not mean that all societal rhythms immediately began to structure themselves according to this new principle. There will always be differences between the speeds that new technologies make possible and the time cultures of the societies in which they are introduced. Indeed, throughout history there are many examples of counter-reactions to accelerations of time. Nevertheless, the general tendency is that the fastest speeds are followed. As the early environmental thinker Ivan Illich pointed out: “A linear sense of time progression inherent in the idea of development implies that there is always a better and a more” (Illich 1999 p. 16). Implicit in the ideology of development that has long dominated the Western world is a latent desire for something more and better. Following this, the highest speed, and its benefits, become goals in themselves. Technological time and the time culture of Western societies can be said to have followed from one another throughout history, though of course it is essential to maintain a distinction between the two.

Below I will broadly describe the first temporal Empire: how it became based on clock and thus machine time and how our understanding of the future has been affected by this. Next I will describe the second temporal Empire: how it has become based on computer time, how all human time is tending to become production-oriented and how the very idea of the future is tending to disappear.

The first temporal Empire

According to Hassan, the first temporal Empire begins with the industrial revolution. One technological innovation plays a key if not basic role in this: the invention of the mechanical clock. Clock time is an abstraction that exists neither in humans nor in our natural environment. Rather, by mechanical means, clock time creates a mathematically precise ’time grid’ against which other kinds of time can be measured. Thus we can speak of the clock’s synchronising effect: all other forms of time can be compared against the clock. This is because clock time does not change – it repeats itself in a constant way and therefore remains the same. Clock time’s own logic is pure repetition without difference. In Hassan’s formulation, the clock ’cuts’ all timescapes into mathematically equal pieces.

However, the fact that the clock can measure all other temporalities is double-sided. Everything can indeed be measured according to the clock’s system but in itself the clock is not adequate to measure, for example, what Lefebvre calls rhythms, i.e. the rhythms that contain difference, since the clock precisely cannot ’sympathise’ (This concept is derived from Bergson, who describes sensitivity to one’s environment) with these; clock time can only measure the rhythms’ purely mathematical ’quantity’. The clock measures without context of any kind, so one can say that it makes all other times abstract by drawing them into its own one-dimensional plane. There is a strong analogy here with the way in which economic systems measure value. And as with the monetary system, this abstraction has systemic advantages. Everything can be measured and what results is extremely simple and devoid of context: a number.

So much for the clock as a measuring instrument. However, the clock soon begins to be used as an organiser, a Zeitgeber. Other times are not only measured against it, but start to change under the dominance of this new organising time giver. Thus clock time develops from a mono-temporal measurement technique into a framework for the acceleration of societal temporalities – including social, political and economic temporalities.

The economy, the machine and intensified time

The introduction of clock time technology comes to transform society’s notion of time. At times, the hegemony of clock time becomes so great that it is identified with time itself. Its appearance is also symptomatic of the change in consciousness that takes place at this point in history, when the rationalist worldview emerges. The whole nexus whose foundations are laid by the Enlightenment’s scientific and rational worldview, and which, very broadly speaking, later translates into industrialisation, modernity, capitalism and the development of liberal democracy, is partly sustained by clock time and the new opportunities this synchronising and systematising temporality allows.

Through the logic of the clock, time is viewed as boxes or blocks of time that, to use spatial terms, can be placed next to each other, a function that in turn can be used to increase the efficiency of work (Bergson is the philosopher who has dealt most directly with this idea of clock time, which is why many of the concepts associated with this topic are very similar to his critical concepts of ’quantitative’ and ’spatial’ time, as presented for example in his Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience.). This enables minute planning of, for example, when students or workers are to arrive at schools or factories, how long they have to stay there and how much they have to achieve. In this temporal regime, time speeds up year by year. Historically, this translates into modes of production such as Taylorism and Fordism, ideals according to which every second of workers’ time are to be maximally exploited (A description of these two concepts can be found in Harvey 1990 pp. 125-41).

For the first time, capital and speed become truly connected, resulting in a circular process: faster technologies and faster labour become key to competing in conditions of scarcity created by the new market mechanisms, mechanisms which in turn demand greater efficiency. This process becomes a key historical driver in the following centuries and remains so in today’s socio-economic world, in which capital and speed are inseparable.

The clock and the disembodied future

When a whole society’s temporal constitution and lifeworld is transformed in this way, it has a number of consequences, as I have outlined above. People’s perception of the future also changes. Barbara Adam and Chris Groves describe how the introduction of mechanical time results in an abstraction of society’s view of the future. The future is no longer a continuation of the present, but is detached and becomes free-floating, disembodied. An abstract predictability based on the imperatives of production takes the place of a future that is a continuation of the present. The gains that are to be made in a week, a month, a year are timetabled, and this sets the trend for a future largely determined by the systematising rationale of the clock (and calendar). Adam and Groves highlight the link between the economy and clock time and develop a notion of the ’commodified future’. In Adam’s words, the future is transformed into a resource that can be “budgeted, wasted, allocated, sold, or controlled” (Adams 1990 p. 104). In other words, the future has been emptied out and can therefore be filled with economic rationales.

What, following Hassan, I am calling the first temporal Empire, is initially characterised by the change in the temporal meta-context that took place after the introduction of clock time as Zeitgeber, which is a key factor in social acceleration. This period sees a continuous intensification of time. The goal is an increase in production per unit of clock time in order to increase economic accumulation. This process is fundamental to the industrial revolution.

The mindset on which the intensification and acceleration of time is based, which can be traced back to the beginning of the industrial revolution, becomes increasingly dominant in modernity. However, according to Hassan, the way in which this acceleration works begins to undergo a radical change. Once again, this can be analysed by looking at the development of new technologies, in this case information and communication technologies (ICT).

The second temporal Empire: the nonstop society and extensified temporality

The transition from the first to the second temporal Empire, which Hassan locates at around 1970, may in part be described as a transition from a Fordist to a Post-Fordist work structure, which among other things involves what is called flextime. The transition occurs partly because the Fordist way of working comes to be regarded as inflexible and rigid. Flextime on the other hand is designed to allow the individual to structure his or her working week without being bound by fixed working hours. This happens partly because the nature of work changes from material to immaterial labour as a result of much of the work being taken over by ICT and thus no longer being bound to certain times or places.

What happens initially, then, is that the individual’s temporal autonomy is extended. In the transition from a work environment controlled by clock time, this at first seems liberating and, in Martin Held’s words, awakens a “hope for the freedom to decide the temporal structure of one’s own life” (Held 1999 p. 3, my translations). Yet there is a danger. The disappearance of fixed working hours can lead to a way of thinking about time as ’empty space’, with the individual as the sovereign organiser. The formal differences between working time, leisure time and other previously fixed forms of time disappear, meaning that all the hours of the day become potential working hours. The hope of freedom, writes Held, conceals the fact that the motto of “having everything available everywhere, right away, and for as long as you want” (Ibid. p. 3, my translations) becomes the new way of thinking about time. This has led to the concepts of ’the nonstop society’ and ’the 24-hour world’.

Put differently, one could say that the clock’s mechanical rhythm is broken down and replaced by an empty time without predetermined divisions – a time in which nothing is defined in advance (Deleuze and Guattari have an apt term for this: ’the smooth (time)space’. This is contrasted with ’the striated (time) space’, as clock time could be called. See Deleuze and Guattari 2004 pp. 523-551). In this time the possibilities seem completely open, meaning that the individual may tend to feel in command of his or her self-realisation. The transition to this undefined time breaks down the divisions maintained by the era of the clock in the first temporal Empire, such as the eight-hour working day. The rationale of the time grid is being eroded and all time is becoming potentially production-oriented. According to Held, this has significant consequences for individuals, producing feelings of restlessness and ’pauselessness’ (’Pausenlosigkeit’. Held 1999 pp. 1-2 26). With the dissolution of the Fordist division between work and leisure, the production period becomes ’extensified’ to encompass all 24 hours of the day. Thus the road is paved for an increase in weekly working hours – and increased acceleration.

Network time: computer language, integration and speed

In discussing the first temporal Empire, I described a tendency of intensification of social rhythms. This intensification can be said to have continued in the second temporal Empire, but in new guises. The extensification of work time is one reflection of this. In addition, a shift occurs in terms of where the temporal changes takes place: the scene changes. In the second temporal Empire, the virtual space becomes central. A process of digitisation occurs. As Hassan writes: “ICT takes centre-stage as a flexible and invasive techno-logic that transforms the range of older and more diverse processes and dynamics within the economy, society and culture into a singular connecting system” (Hassan 2009a p. 69). With these new technologies, a new form of organisation arises that functions on new and exceptional premises. This new virtual space operates on the basis of the binary number system, which in turn is based on the smallest possible difference between units of information: 1 and 0 or ’on’ and ’off’. All the information the system takes in is translated into this language, which because of its basic simplicity works extremely quickly – and therefore is accompanied by a lot of immediate advantages.

The network expands very rapidly and seems to be able to integrate almost everything, from the numerical measurements used in the banking and taxation sectors to digitalised music and movies, cartography and so on. This integration also happens within social relationships. In this way the network opens up through wide-ranging integration and begins to have a major impact on societal rhythms.

There is a marked increase in the speed of integration. This doesn’t come free: “its totalizing logic tends to close down those elements of economy and society that are not consistent with its modalities” (Hassan 2009a p. 80). There are two parts to this statement. The first is that the digital networks have their own modalities, which in fact are not open to everything: something is necessarily lost in the conversion to the digital sphere and its language. The network is by nature reductive and reduction creates acceleration. Secondly, Hassan’s statement implies that, in the temporal perspective, it is the spheres with slow Eigenzeiten that will not fit into the network’s modality or will soon be marginalised by faster systems. Thus it can be said that the network’s inherent logic is to increase in speed.

What happens in the second temporal Empire, therefore, is a radical and colossal translation of large parts of the human lifeworld into a meta-language whose basic characteristic is speed. In addition, this network’s inherent logic causes a marginalisation of those systems that operate more slowly than the very fastest ones. The temporal spectrum is in danger of reduction to include only the fastest tempos.

There are almost no limits to what this network can translate and thereby integrate into its system. We ourselves, who increasingly work with and in the network, also become accustomed to and synchronised with its temporality. We are moving towards the above-mentioned ’nonstop society’ (which tends to extend the individual’s working hours) by virtue of the fact that we become ever more connected to the network: “The virtual ecology is created, maintained and sustained as a consequence of the users’ capacity to be ’always on’, and through the system’s logic that is oriented towards ’ubiquitous computing’ which, in turn, creates the appropriate environmental conditions for [...] the ’persistent connection”’ (Ibid. p. 87). In this way, the individual becomes, to a great extent, synchronised with network time, and thus the foundation is laid for a lifeworld with a completely different kind of temporality. In these surroundings it is vital to create a time culture in which we can deliberately choose the temporalities that fit our lifeworld best. Thereby we will hopefully be able to distinguish between gains and losses in using the new technologies that are on the rise and that has the potential to change our lives in radical ways.

Life within the second temporal Empire

Michel Serres suggests a supplementary concept to ’hard pollution’, which is his term for what we normally understand by pollution: chemical and toxic waste, etc. ’Soft pollution’ consists not of CO2 or toxins, but of “tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos” that flood “rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes” (Serres 2010 pp. 41-2). The term refers to the amount of information in the form of language and signs that are constantly sent into the ether by administrators, journalists, scientists, and of course the entertainment and advertising sectors, forming such a thick layer of signs that it’s hard to get a word in. The density of information is radically increased, and the resulting competition for attention leads to a further intensification of the signs: it becomes necessary to communicate as loudly as possible in order to penetrate the layer of soft pollution.

Serres describes how this soft pollution overshadows or conceals our capacity for long-term thinking. This happens because the languages and signs of soft pollution mainly relate to our internal communication networks, such as “numerical data, equations, dossiers, legal texts, news bulletins hot off the press or the wire” (Serres 1995 p. 28) – in other words, short-term networks that do not primarily concern ’things’, or our actual surroundings. The overriding social communication now takes place indoors and in words, never outdoors and with things, as Serres formulates it. He sees this as a radical social change, and indeed describes the greatest event of the 20th century as the loss of agriculture as an essential part of the general population’s lifeworld, since this meant the loss of daily contact with the rhythm of ’things’.

Soft pollution’s loud, human-centred communication also casts a shadow over our perceptual abilities. The communication bombardment that we are subjected to can be said to lead us towards a kind of anaesthesia and insensitivity to our surroundings. Soft pollution covers up the ’space of things’ with information, with the result that things with marginal presences and low voices risk being ignored. This could for example be a landscape, “which itself is more difficult, discreet, silent, and often dying because unseen by any saving perception” (Serres 2010 p. 51). What you no longer see is easier to pollute, and Serres describes how pollution continuously spreads to unprotected areas: it is disastrous for a landscape or a natural environment to no longer to be seen, or not to be seen for what it is and for the timescape it contains, but instead as a territory that can be possessed.

For Serres the vital capacity for long-term thinking is linked with the ability and opportunity to stay connected with the outside world – with the world of things and the world of the cosmos. This world operates with immensely long time spans and can teach humans to incorporate these into their lifeworld – not just for their own sake, but also out of respect for the Earth’s temporalities. This sensibility and human synchronisation with the Earth’s time are in danger of being forgotten amid the noise and rapacity of soft pollution.

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