To me, the first of January is always a write-off. Nothing productive ever happens. It exists among the days of hangovers and jetlag. But now it is the day after the first, and it is now (as it was yesterday) 2012, and that means it is the perfect time to discuss, well, time. And there have been quite a few timely stories lately, from Samoa and Tokelau going back to the future, to the growing schism between international time and astronomical time. Even the Royal Society has some choice words on tricky temporal travails. And, resolutions aside, I’m going to attempt to be timely myself, and make this a rather short post. I want to share a few thoughts and links about the commercialization of time.
Of course, time is involved in many non-trivial ways in our daily life: the flow and change of seasons that signalled times of growth and harvest; the rotations of the sun that marked out the day’s working hours; the shivers of tide that allow for the gathering of molluscs, and so on. There is a strain of philosophy, particular the early Phenomenologists, that assert that such relationships to time are primordial, originary. These initial demarcations of time and change are what allow our mind to grasp a hold on the concept, to bring it to the rarefied reaches of reason, and to gain a measure of control over it. This is a rich field of thought, but I want to make just a few remarks about one aspect of this control: when time becomes part of – a tool, even – of our commercial and economic spheres.
Harvard Professor Peter Galison, and his book, Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps, helped me make sense of how time was reigned in. Until the late 19th century and early 20th, every major urban central had its own ‘local time’, most often set to accord with astronomical time, where noon corresponds to the apex of the sun in the sky. But with the introduction of telegraph lines (and predominantly their use in calculating longitudinal maps), among other reasons, time was brought under international purview, and regulation.
We can find in these telegraph lines the beginning of time’s integration into our economy. This shouldn’t be taken to mean those aspects of our economy ‘where time is of the essence’ in expediting parcels, or trading stocks – where time, or the lack thereof, is prized – but in date-line jumping and satellite calculations (the modern day telegraphy). Time is no longer just a way of marking change, or an absolute stream, or the meaning of the structure of care – and maybe it never has been just these things – but now it’s not just something we value, but an integral part of our economy, something to be debated over in terms of dollars and cents, part of what makes the world as we know it go round.