Modern Time(s)

In the final scene of A Christmas Carol, after Ebenezer Scrooge has survived the hauntings of all three ghosts, the newly-reformed miser rushes to work in an attempt to catch his clerk, Bob Cratchit, coming in late. Sure enough, Cratchit arrives a “full eighteen and half minutes behind his time.” Expecting his boss to berate him as usual, or worse, he offers excuses about the merriment of the recent holiday. “It’s only once a year,” he protests. When Scrooge offers to raise his salary instead, however, Cratchit assumes his employer must have gone mad.

A Christmas Carol [1984] Final Scene | Source: Alkis Polyrakis/YouTube

It is fitting that his forgiving of Bob’s lateness marks Scrooge’s final step towards reformation, as a debate about timeliness and time off opens the story and cements Scrooge’s bona fides as a wicked supervisor. While we usually think of Dickens’ story as an allegory for Christmas cheer and love, it’s worth noting that the symbols he uses throughout the story are deeply tied to ideas of time. Scrooge’s inability to mark the time since Marley’s death, the three spirits’ embodiment of past, present, and future, and the relationship of timeliness to morality are all indicative of a fascination with time on the part of Dickens. Throughout A Christmas Carol, time serves as a rigid marker and yet also feels deeply unsettled.

Whether it is Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickensian London, global capitalists in the 1880’s, or Silicon Valley tech moguls today, power and time are inextricably tied together.

Unsettled time makes sense because Dickens was in fact living in unsettled times, temporally speaking. Just four years after he first published A Christmas Carol in 1843, the United Kingdom became the first country to adopt a version of national standard time. This was one of many radical changes to how people thought about and experienced time in the 19th-century. Bob Cratchit was on the early end of those shifts, as he saw his employer develop a strong interest in controlling his time and deploying the technology required to do so effectively. But he also serves as the literary precursor of greater changes to come as modern time began to be imagined, articulated and then imposed on the world over the next century.

The first age of European-dominated global capitalism posed some specific problems for the capitalists. As European (and American) empires spread across the globe in the late 19th- and early-20th centuries, technology like the telegraph, railroads, and steam ships allowed those empires to remain in closer contact than the empires of the 17th- and 18th-centuries. Both within European nations and in relation to their colonies, these technologies combined to rapidly shift people’s experience of time and space. In the span of a single life, distance and time compressed in sometimes shocking ways. Simultaneously, this compression presented serious logistical challenges for those (almost exclusively White) men seeking to profit from these new economic opportunities. Although it was now possible to quickly move goods, people, and information across large distances, traditional methods for managing such massive projects proved ineffective on vastly reduced timelines. In the process of developing more advanced systems for managing these enterprises, these global capitalists had to grapple with a problem at the intersection of technology and culture: time.

The History and Future of Everything — Time | Source: © Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell/YouTube

Time poses unique challenges for anyone insistent on controlling it because it is in fact two separate things. Time is a fundamental quantity for understanding the physical universe and as such is measurable and divisible into regular units. But it is also an experienced reality that is perceived differently by each individual and can be deeply influenced by culture. To think more clearly about time, it’s helpful to distinguish these two types. Vanessa Ogle, a time historian, offers the distinction of clock time and temporality as helpful categories. Clock time is the measurable constant that can be divided into hours, minutes, and seconds. Temporality is an understanding of the relationship between past, present, and future. Temporalities are culturally constructed and multiple temporalities can often exist alongside each other. 

Controlling time — or more accurately, controlling temporalities — is an exercise in power.

For example, many agrarian societies developed a temporality based on the cyclical rhythms of the harvest. This view of time can be imagined as a cylinder with time advancing slowly forward, but also circling back along largely predictable paths. A distinct expression of this type of temporality is the concept of saṃsāra in many religions originating on the Indian subcontinent. This type of cyclical temporality is also evident in the Christian liturgical calendar, with its annual return to Christmas and Easter. It stands in contrast with Christian historical thinking, which imagines a linear temporality beginning with Creation and advancing to the Second Coming. So even within one intellectual tradition, temporalities with fundamentally different ways of experiencing time can exist side by side.

Prior to the 19th-century, the dominant temporality across the world was one rooted in the biophysical rhythms of the sun. People generally woke up when it was light, worked and took breaks throughout the day as their routines and physical needs dictated, and then retired for the night when it got dark. Since they did not have any abstract language for time, only their personal experience of it, communicating time-dependent information was challenging. Academics Thomas Ward and Rebecca Larcohe, for example, have shown how some recipes in early modern Europe did not give instructions in minutes but rather in prayer — let your tea steep for as long as it takes to recite Psalm 51. (Many of us can empathize with this experience — since few of us can accurately count out 20 seconds, we still rely on song to pace our hand washing.)

Comparative Time Table in 1857 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Comparative Time Tables in the United States, in 1875 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

In some parts of the world, urbanization had progressed enough that people desired some amount of synchronicity within a city or specific area. Thus they developed the concept of local time. Similar to biophysical time, local time was determined using the position of the sun in the sky as observed in a specific location. But unlike biophysical time, people used mechanical technology to maintain and distribute local time. Municipalities would agree on a specific noon, set by the ringing of a bell or a clock tower, and then clocks or watches would be set to that time. So while local time was measurable and kept using external devices, it was still highly specific. Usually, but not always, following an urban-rural divide, these two temporalities coexisted throughout much of the world long into the 19th-century. As late as 1875, the United States officially recognized 75 local times — including 3 in Chicago alone.

Strangest Time Zones of the World | Source: © WonderWhy/YouTube

This approach to time presented serious challenges to industrial capitalists looking to expand their operations beyond a specific city. The development of a national railroad network exposed this issue particularly clearly: rail schedules published by railroad companies often had to contend with several different local times across a single route. Under the local time temporality, they had several inconvenient options. Did they publish a different version of their schedule for each local time (impractical and expensive)? Or did they publish one schedule, with each stop given in its corresponding local time (helpful when you’re at the station, but not when you’re planning your travel)? Or did they set one time, say using the originating city, for the entire route (making planning easy but catching your train incredibly difficult)? Ultimately, most railroads adopted the last option, in effect giving each line its own small time zone.

Unsurprisingly, this solution proved to be less than ideal. People missed trains, there were occasional collisions due to misread local times, and it took the railroad staff much longer to assemble schedules. In short, it was bad for business. The solution that was ultimately articulated by railroad bureaucrats was to establish a system of standard time that would do away with the confusion of multiple local times. Standard time was a form of centralized clock time, where the time at a specific location (such as the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. or the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK) superseded individual local times. Rather than Philadelphia, New York, and Boston each having their own local time, those cities and every person in between would follow the same time set by the Naval Observatory in Washington. 

How did trains standardize time in the United States? – William Heuisler | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube

Standard time expressed the values of industrial capitalism: centralization, efficiency, and rationalization. It did away with local control over time by imposing a central time provider. It promoted efficiency by removing local time as an obstacle to expansion. And it rationalized time keeping at the expense of local, personal experiences of time. It truly was a new temporality.

Those with the power to shape the dominant model of time will do so to their advantage and often to the disadvantage of those without power.

Although not the first time a new temporality had been imposed from above, the effects of standard time were sweeping in their scope and implications. Previous time changes, usually called time reforms — itself a language of power relations — were often focused on altering calendar temporalities. For example, when Julius Caesar assumed power in Rome, he oversaw the adoption of a new calendar system that rectified misalignments in Rome’s existing calendar. It also took the power to set the calendar away from the religious authorities, giving Rome’s future civic leaders more control. As sweeping as these changes were — Caesar added 80 days to 46 BCE to bring the year into alignment with his new system — they did not impact most people’s day-to-day life in any dramatic way. 

The Longest Year in Human History (46 B.C.E.) | Source: © Historia Civilis/YouTube

In contrast, standard time fundamentally altered the way people thought about and experienced time. Beginning around the turn of the 20th-century, as the combined forces of global capitalism and imperialism began imposing this new temporality on communities across the world, people felt the intrusion of the new temporality into their lives in deep ways. Proponents of standard time argued that because it built on the language of rational, scientific progress, the adoption of standard time was a step towards a better world. That it was value neutral. But something that touches every person as closely as their experience of time cannot be value neutral. Capitalists in London, Berlin, and New York understood this — they had developed standard time to their benefit. Farmers in East Anglia and textile workers in Mumbai (Bombay at the time) understood this as well and resisted standard time, which they saw as an attempt to suppress local traditions. 

Beyond suppressing local temporalities, standard time produced deeper dislocations because its underlying logic spurred further technological and organizational shifts. Without accurate and synchronized time-keeping devices, standard time was of little use to anyone, so the drive to develop that technology intensified. While early standard time in the U.S. was set by the aid of time balls (large balls that would drop when a telegraph signal was received, indicating the time — the ancestors of the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square), the push for more accurate and smaller clocks soon did away with the need for this. The World Wars saw, and encouraged, the development of small wristwatches that could be mass produced. As the century continued, time keeping features appeared on more and more devices — GE introduced electric clocks on appliances as early as 1939. By the end of the 2010’s, just about every electronic device in an American home had a clock on it. 

I Built a Time-Ball (Because Greenwich’s Broke) | Source: © Half-Asleep Chris/YouTube

The natural endpoint of both the ideological and technological expansion of standard time is the development of smart technology. Smart phones, watches, smart home devices, and other networked technology all rely on unified time to function. At the same time, they keep us tethered to clock time in a way 19th-century capitalists could only dream of. Notifications and reminders help us keep on track, but they also make stepping away from clock time into other temporalities increasingly difficult. The move towards “tech-free” vacations is as much a movement away from the tyranny of standard time in our pockets as anything else. It’s a search for those experiences ‘outside time’ that other temporalities celebrate and that standard time so rigorously tries to suppress.


Although there continued to be resistance to the new global capitalist temporality, today almost every person on the planet interacts with it on a regular basis. In post-industrial nations, it is firmly entrenched as the dominant way of thinking about time. While this has made some activities — particularly air travel — significantly safer, it has also had a profound impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing. As we find ourselves ever more controlled by clock time, our experience of time has become increasingly separated from our biophysical rhythms. Anyone who has had to attend an early morning meeting the day of daylight savings can attest to the discomfort caused by such an unnatural adjustment; the data showing increased fatalities on the day after a time change should be discomforting as well. The logic of clock time pushes us towards all sorts of these daily misalignments: the insistence on starting most work at 9:00 A.M. drives millions of people into rush hour traffic, increasing stress for all drivers.

As Ogle argues, many of the changes wrought on our daily lives by the supremacy of clock time, or standard time, are not merely the result of technological changes. Instead, these technologies are put in the service of specific ideological visions. In the 19th- and early-20th centuries, this was a vision of a global capitalist order dominated by European and American elites. Thus, the time system they developed reflected their values — uniformity, efficiency, and linear progress — at the expense of countless other, and equally valid, ways of approaching time. The political, economic, and military dominance of those elites provided the foundation of power necessary to impose a new system of time on the world and in the process further cement their control over the global order. Those who opposed this imposed time system — and there were many who did — were astute enough to realize this. Rather than being the anti-progress Luddites that elites portrayed them as, they could be more accurately described as temporal activists. Clear-eyed on the consequences of yielding control of their time to others.

Standard time expressed the values of industrial capitalism: centralization, efficiency, and rationalization.

The emergence of new technologies and technology companies in the 21st-century again raises important questions over who controls time. One of the central questions at the center of the gig economy is control of workers’ time. The ideology behind most app-based work is that flexibility and control over one’s own time is of central importance. However, the reality for many working within this new system is far different. While those with power talk of flexibility, those without have found the financial security afforded by traditional work undermined by app-based labor. For all the promises of control shifting to workers, most have found themselves working more and with less ultimate control over their time as they struggle to earn a living wage.

The False Promise Of The Gig Economy | Think | NBC News | Source: © NBC News/YouTube

It’s a stark reminder that controlling time — or more accurately, controlling temporalities — is an exercise in power. Those with the power to shape the dominant model of time will do so to their advantage and often to the disadvantage of those without power. Whether it is Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickensian London, global capitalists in the 1880’s, or Silicon Valley tech moguls today, power and time are inextricably tied together. Unlike Bob Cratchit, who had Scrooge minding his time from across the office, we have so internalized the power structures of standard time that they rarely require external enforcement. Indeed, when there is a conflict between our subjective experience of time and the socially constructed temporality, the latter’s objectivity always seems to win out. There’s no Mr. Scrooge tapping his pocket watch and peering over his spectacles at us. But every tool and resource in our world counts out the seconds for him.

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