Throw away your clocks

increasingly unclear
22 min readFeb 25, 2024

Not enough time? Want to be more productive? Try thinking of time in terms of quality, not quantity.

[You can read a condensed version of this story here.]

There is a lonely absurdity in the idea of racing against the clock at the end of time” — Jenny Odell, Saving Time

Time is something that everyone knows, but no one can really explain. Physicists and philosophers have found no evidence that it exists at all. Yet the clocks keep on ticking, and most of us treat time as a resource that we never have enough of: as the saying goes, time is money.

It’s easy to know what the time is. You just look at your phone, right? Maybe your “smart” wristwatch. Your device, in any case. The numbers tell all, at a glance and with precision you can trust — how long you’ve got until your next meeting, maybe, or how much is left of your work day or school day.

Where do those numbers come from? What do they represent? How do they make us feel? And what are they doing to us?

Just asking such questions implies that something is wrong with time as we know it. That’s indeed what we believe. Artist/researcher Helga Schmid is the world’s leading expert in uchronia — utopia for time. She and I have been studying this for a while now, and this article discusses some of the evidence we’ve collected, then suggests what we might do about it.

Our aim is not to help you to be more productive — we believe that the pursuit of productivity is part of the problem, not the goal. The goals are better health, less stress, more happiness, and maybe, more social equality. Those are ambitious goals, but we will show you how stepping away from the clock, and taking a different approach to time, can achieve them. And if you are interested in productivity, our approach reframes it in terms of quality, not quantity of work.

Enter computime

Of the countless books and articles about time, many have traced its past: the history of clocks and other timing mechanisms, both natural and artificial. Physicists, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking to Carlo Rovelli, have tied it to, or tried to pry it from, space — time as the fourth dimension. Philosophers, since antiquity, have tried to tease out the timeless nature of time, characterizing it as a growing series of blocks or branches falling from a tree.

Closer to our own work, chronobiologists study the temporal nature of the body and other natural systems. Chronosociologists and anthropologists zoom out to the societal level to distinguish broader temporal patterns or cultural specificities. According to Shae Brown, “clock-time separates human experience from the complex temporal processes of life”.

Artists disrupt, interrupt and redesign the clock. Time transcends language. And poets, if you’ll forgive my language here, fuck with our sense of time by redesigning language itself, using rhythm and rhyme.

All of these groups approach time from a different angle, and this is a good thing — time is so fundamental to our existence, yet still so mysterious, that we should welcome a multiplicity of perspectives. But the trade-off for such variety is a lack of unified methods and theories. Even within the humanities, for example, one research project found “the lack of shared vocabulary…and the way assumptions about time operate largely implicitly”.

Our aim is to expose some of these assumptions, and to propose some useful ways of thinking about, talking about, living with (and within) time, while living outside of clock time — while recognizing the limitations of language in doing so, and thus moving from science to art, and from clocks and measurement to rhythms, phases and processes.

In one part of our research, we zoom in on what we call digital time — the numbers used by your devices to count days, hours, minutes. If you prefer round clocks with “hands” that go round and round, good for you, since such clocks at least allude to the idea of recurring cycles — you can see where time is coming from as well as where it’s going. But if you use such a clock, you are in a shrinking minority.

Digital devices are ubiquitous. But as this article points out, “some of the most basic questions of the digital age have yet to be answered.” This includes questions around digital time.

Jeremy Rifkin raised the alarm as early as 1987 about the dangers of what he calls computime. But there was no stopping the seemingly accelerating pace that digital technologies have spread throughout the world — closely tied, we’re quick to add, to the spread of capital and increasing social and economic inequality.

More recently, Stamatia Portanova characterises our contemporary condition as one in which

actions are not always afforded the time spans that seem appropriate to circumstances [and] become bound by the mechanically imposed units of clock time. […] Clock time becomes imposed on the majority of formal human actions, the result being that we become obsessed by the mechanical scheduling of activities (e.g., working, sleeping, loving, eating). (p.23)

It goes round and round, and it goes on and on.

Post-digital, post-human

We take a post-digital and a post-human approach to time. What does that mean?

A post-digital approach no longer regards the digital as something separate, but as already embedded in our infrastructure, our interactions, and our identities. Re-read that and think about it for a moment. Then consider how smartphones and internet access are spreading in every country on Earth.

That brings us to the post-human. Forget fantasies of downloading our minds and memories into computers, and becoming cyborgs or digital versions of ourselves that might fly off into space and live forever. To some extent this is happening. But just what, where, and in what forms we are downloading is, to us, far from creating complete digital doubles of our embodied selves.

No, what we mean by the post-human is about shifting our focus away from the human-centered perspective that seems to have been a disaster for other creatures and the planet as a whole, and furthermore has privileged some humans over others. We believe that trying to see things from the perspectives of different natural and artificial systems enables us to see how they look back at humans in relation to their own qualities, “needs” or “desires” (see for example my post-human perspective on objects).

Not everyone agrees with this post-human approach — it attributes a degree of agency to nonhuman things. You might agree that natural, living things like animals and ecosystems are driven by their own desire for survival, but what about non-living things?

Take the car as an example. People generally drive cars to get to places faster than walking, cycling or on horseback. Yet most people don’t drive so slowly that they hinder other traffic. Collectively, traffic maintains its own minimum speed limits, enforced with the honking of horns, verbal abuse and more.

More specifically, cars are designed to travel at certain speeds. Cars want to go fast, and in return for the convenience they afford, they have deeply affected human geography and lives. We know this from experience, having both grown up in the “car cultures” of California and Bavaria. And personally, I believe that when there is a car accident, responsibility lies not only with the driver, but is shared in a car-driver system that acts as more than the sum of its parts.

Similarly with clocks and computers. A post-human approach to time, for us, means looking at human temporality from their perspectives, and more broadly from a systems perspective.

This approach can also include natural systems, like the rotation of the earth, plants or animals. Mostly, though, we look at time and at humans from the perspective of computers and their designers and developers. We also consider human perspectives that run alongside, against, or around the dominant narratives. (One of our students, Francesco Tacchini, wrote a great MA dissertation: Along it, around it, against it: For an algorithmic counter-design.)

“Post-human,” then, for us doesn’t mean “after the human” any more than “post-digital” means “after the digital.” We are, however, concerned with the future. There are many good books tracing the development and spread of clocks and clock time]. Generally, we are concerned with the present. But we get there via the past and future.

Three problems with time

You know the feeling. You look up from the screen thinking, Where did the time go? We now know the answer: the computer stole human time. The email inbox, the Slack channel, the social media feeds, the To Do list — they all call out to us, and it’s so easy to do just one more thing. Anyone who works primarily at a screen might feel lucky not to have to shuffle paper around, to get up and over to a telephone cabled to the wall, or go and talk to someone in the next room when an instant message is so much faster.

Yes, “productivity tools” like the computer free up time, as do tools of convenience like cars and dishwashers. One problem, however, is that the time they free up, we just fill with more work. That’s the definition of a gain in productivity — more work done in the same amount of time. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls this the circle of acceleration: Technological acceleration leads to accelerating social change, which leads to a broader acceleration in the pace of life, which leads to technological acceleration, ad infinitum.

But when we demonstrate that we can do more in the same amount of time, more becomes expected — by ourselves or our employers. And more, and more. Now we can automate more and more tasks using artificial intelligence, which accelerates the pace of work even more. But now we also increasingly compete with algorithms, robots and AI in an expanding number of areas of work, and they don’t work at human timescales. Instead, the opposite is true: we increasingly work at algorithmic timescales.

Meanwhile, we’re still contracted by our employers for a certain number of hours, maybe even working more than those allotted, if that’s part of the company culture. So we work too much, either by choice or through social or competitive pressure.

Thus as sociologist Judy Wajcman shows, even while leisure time has measurably increased over the past several decades, more and more people feel “pressed for time,” unable to keep up. The number of people diagnosed with “Burnout Syndrome” in Western societies has been rising, according to chronobiologists.

There is now a mountain of careful research showing that people who experience long hours of work have serious health consequences,” according to Stanford Professor John Pencavel. There are strong links between long working hours and smoking, alcohol and substance use. People who work nonstop in fast-paced environments see their bodies start to break down after four years on the job: heart problems, high blood pressure, a greater likelihood of injuries on the job, and poor sleep at home. (source)

Poor sleep in turn creates its own problems. Sleep loss not only reduces cognitive performance and problem-solving ability; chronic sleep loss causes brain damage, specifically affecting our estimation of risk — it leads to more risk-taking behaviour. And the most sleep-deprived are those who like to boast about how little they sleep — leaders of companies, politicians, doctors. These are the people making decisions for the rest of us, notes anthropologist Kevin Birth.

What time is it? Why do you care?

Alarm bells

Okay, we could all work less and sleep more, but what does all of that have to do with the clock?

The second problem arises when we adhere to rigid clock times and ignore our bodily rhythms and signs of trouble. For example, simply using an alarm clock regularly can mean not only depriving yourself of sleep (side note: it’s not possible to sleep too much, according to chronobiologist Till Roenneberg), but also waking up at the wrong time, biologically. Since the body cycles through three to five cycles of shallow and deep sleep per night on average, and each night can vary, your alarm could go off during a deep sleep phase. You know the feeling — that’s when you hit the snooze button and fall instantly back to sleep.

“Sure, I’d love to sleep as long as I want, but I’ll lose my job.”

There are a few ways to address this one. Easiest is to simply train yourself by going to bed earlier (see Roenneberg or Russell Foster on entrainment). The second is to use daylight if you can, to wake up with the sun instead of blocking out daylight, if this works with your schedule. The third is a technological solution: there are sleep tracking apps that sense your sleep patterns using motion or sound, then wake you up closest to your alarm-set time but in a shallow sleep phase. (The downside of such apps, however, is that they can create anxiety.)

This raises an important point: we do not suggest abandoning all technologies and retreating into some fictional past consisting only of natural rhythms. We can use our technologies “smarter” (to use the jargon shared by both the self-help and tech industries).

We can even do this without any reference to clock times. Let’s say we’re going to meet. We agree on a general place and a day — “in the afternoon,” say. Then we use our phones to coordinate: “I’m on my way,” “I just arrived,” “I’m at the cafe” etc. We can do all this without reference to clock times. (This is described as approximeeting by Rich Ling.)

Speaking of self-help, we have identified a big problem with most self-help books and gurus — and with most productivity, mindfulness and scheduling apps. They usually rely on clock times or precise timings. For us, these are part of the problem, not the solution. The common assumption that time is something external and universal means that when people have problems with time, the answer is usually to recalibrate ourselves to clock time, through “time management” and self-discipline, according to Sarah Sharma.

As an alternative, personally I structure my time around tasks and not the clock (whenever possible). For example, instead of scheduling an hour of “focused time” without distractions, I will work on one thing up to a natural stopping point: read or write an article or a chapter, write some code that accomplishes just one thing as part of a larger project, complete some self-contained part of an artwork, etc.

Enter the computer

In fact, we all already live inside an interconnected, global computational system that affects even those remote humans who still might live without any digital technology whatsoever, because this system now affects weather and climate, and by extension food systems, trade, travel and communications.

An audibly ticking clock these days sounds quaint, mechanical, even slow — this exposes its origin as a Medieval technology, from which it is basically unchanged. We might well wonder how it lasted so long.

Computational time, by contrast, is silent but produces more anxiety. It is independent of both nature and the individual, subjective experience of duration. In the computer, there are only events and states, as I mentioned in a recent article.

The rhythm of a ticking clock is not far from the human heartbeat. The hour, the minute, the second, even the tenth of a second — these are all perceptible in human terms.

Not so with computime: Just snapping your fingers takes half a million microseconds, whereas in AI systems, decisions that might have broad social implications now take place in a temporal space that’s below the threshold of human consciousness, according to Rifkin. That’s okay to some extent, because the computer can slow things down to human speeds — for example, ChatGPT can generate responses at lightning speed, but “types” them on the screen slowly, for user-friendliness.

The computer also enables microsecond-level precision in the temporal analysis and structuring of human behaviour — for example recording keystrokes and eye movements. Sensors in smartphones impact their users today in, for example, those productivity, mindfulness and health-tracking apps. Many people find these useful, but they reflect not only the quantification of the self, but of time as well: more than just numbers, time becomes programmable. And by extension, so do people.

As Portanova observes:

How time is mapped and manipulated by informational machines is clearly an important component of how different experiences of time are brought together and how they are compressed, and it seems evident that our experiences are more and more aligned to their temporal operations.

This is a significant shift. Clocks have structured and synchronized human activity for centuries, and while this caused many problems, people generally accepted and adopted a common timekeeping system that was consistent across all cultures and time zones, for the tradeoff of coordinating their systems and interactions.

Digital computers, too, bring many benefits which are shared by people of many cultures. Like clocks, they are based on mathematical systems originally developed in the Middle East: ancient Egyptians are believed to be the first to divide the day into 24 hours, and the algorithm is derived from Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. Like clocks too, computers were then developed into their current form first in Europe, and then headed west to Silicon Valley.

There, computation became a commodity. And because it swallowed clocks and regurgitated them in new, precise and programmable forms, time too became privatized. This is what we mean when we say that we all live in Silicon Valley now: it controls how computers use time, and how both computers and time use humans in turn. Our third problem with time, therefore, is not individual but social.

Computational logic

Sociologist Helga Nowotny shows how scientific time became societal time through technological objects like clocks, computers and mobile phones. These objects, she observes, offer us availability but also demand it from us, creating a mutual interdependence. Furthermore, they dictate particular forms of work, of knowledge, abilities, attitudes and behaviour, and these then become internalised — by both the technological objects and the people who use them.

Let’s be careful not to veer into technological determinism. As stated above, we try to see humans from the perspective of nonhuman objects like phones and computers, but this is only to look back at ourselves.

What’s more, while things like computers might “want” things that serve their own interests, we don’t believe that digital technologies (including AI) can stand alone as independent agents that can be compared with or opposed to humans: these are socio-technical systems. While they might run autonomously in some limited circumstances, they always rely on humans and cannot exist without them. Any “agency” of the computer ends at its source of electricity: you can always pull the plug. Computers’ “own interests” come from the people who make and control them — though these interests might indeed differ from the interests of people who buy and use them.

Furthermore, as socio-technical systems, computers are inevitably tied up with politics and economics.

For example, perhaps the “prime” example of the privatisation of time is embodied by Amazon (itself a socio-technical system). In order to continually accelerate the time it can deliver all kinds of goods, it relies on precise algorithmic tracking of its workers. It’s not the only company to do this: A 2014 lawsuit against McDonald’s restaurants detailed how algorithmic predictions led to abrupt hiring and firing of workers.

It’s easy to be shocked hearing about such “inhuman” practices, but this is rooted in the computational logic of our societies.

Acceleration or atomization?

What happens when we combine the three problems with clock time that we identified — overworking, the individual effects of relying on clock time over natural rhythms, and the social consequences of the algorithmic control of time?

Besides the obvious consequences to individual mental and physical health mentioned above, we can identify some societal consequences — especially when we add in ceaseless social media and constant attention to the screen.

For one thing, we can identify what Jonathan Crary pinpoints as a standardization or colonization of individual experience: “Because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience.”

Relatedly, part of our unending “work” becomes what he calls self-fashioning, whether through social pressure or an individual desire to get ahead. This work is done on the screen at any hour, “and we dutifully comply with the prescription continually to reinvent ourselves and manage our intricate identities.”

We project our digital selves outwards, and what we get back, at all hours of the day and night, is a constant stream of events and other people’s shifting identities. Context and distance disappear as all things occur simultaneously. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre already noticed this happening with pre-digital 24-hour TV and radio: “The media day fragments. As a result, at every moment, there is a choice.”

But now, because this media of constant choice, continual events and shifting identities is in our hand and in front of our eyes at all times, it’s not only the “media day” that fragments, but time in general. Here comes another philosopher, Byung-Chul Han:

There are no stable social rhythms to unburden the individual’s temporal economy. Not everyone is capable of defining their own time. The increasing plurality of temporal sequences irritates the individual human being and asks too much of it. The lack of pre-given temporal structures does not lead to an increase in freedom, but to a lack of orientation. (p.32)

Han sees not acceleration, but atomization of time. Acceleration, he says, implies a trajectory, a direction; and these, he says, have disappeared. Clock-based productivity apps and constant social media encourage us to jump from one thing to another, destroying any experience of continuity. “This,” he writes, “makes the world untimely. The present is reduced to the point of actuality. It no longer lasts.”

Acceleration or atomization, the full impact of all this on human consciousness is still not known. And so far, according to writer and poet Marianne Shaneen, any open dialogues are neglected,

…including ones such as the value of adopting precision temporal infrastructures in everyday life, the mismatch between the needs of precision time users and many aspects of our social lives, how various social values might contrast with the values embedded in the development of such infrastructures, and, indeed, how time could be designed differently to speak to these issues.

Our common-sense notions of time as fixed, uniform, universal, and external to us, go unquestioned. We couldn’t possible abandon clock time — how could we synchronize our activities and our devices? This is why, when we have problems with time therefore, we generally try to recalibrate ourselves to the clock.

At the start of this article I mentioned a research project in the humanities that pointed to a lack of a common vocabulary for talking about time, and a reluctance (or ignorance) to question the clock. “Our temporal imaginary,” the researchers conclude, “where time is seen as universal rather than infrastructural, is ripe for challenge.”

Challenge accepted.

Rhythms not clocks

The good news is that we have evidence that change is possible. Because technologies are created and controlled by humans, individual and collective human decisions can change the shape of the future. More specifically, chronobiologists have shown that temporal patterns can be reset, with beneficial effects. More broadly, we can do things like increase human lifespans just from changes in lifestyle.

In order to question the clock and challenge our temporal imaginary, I discussed how we take a postdigital, posthuman approach. The saturation of technology, including clocks and digital devices, has paradoxically led to their invisibility, according to anthropologist Jan English-Lueck — they become so ingrained into our lives that they come to seem “natural”.

This saturation has its own temporal dimension — it has taken place over different timescales for different technologies. Because clocks as we know them have been used for centuries, the changes they have brought about have been fairly slow and insidious. The anthropologist Laura Nader (one of my professors) studies such insidious, invisible changes as controlling processes — not social control but cultural control. Shifting from social to cultural means that a phenomenon moves from being imposed by one group onto another, to being embedded and naturalized in a broader culture that includes multiple social groups.

The spread of digital technologies has taken place over decades, not centuries. This more rapid pace of change means that we notice their effects more than we do those caused by our reliance on clock time. But digital technologies have been around for several decades now, and we now have the first couple of “digital native” generations of people growing up with them. Therefore, as of this writing, we are right at the point where they start to become normalized and invisible. The “postdigital” is still a new phenomenon, but it identifies this inflection point.

“A tree is itself a concept of time” — Joseph Beuys

Bridging the temporal divide

As mentioned previously, this is not an article on the physics or philosophy of time, but it’s useful to know some history of how we think about time, so that you can understand our own assumptions in writing this series of articles.

Questioning digital time, for us, means excavating the changes wrought by clocks and digital technologies, exposing the assumptions embedded in them, and then posing some alternatives. In order to do that, we need to zoom out and separate the notion of time from the technologies and the humans that use it and exist within it. And that distinction — between the use and the existence of time — is an important one. It defines time as a tool or technology on the one hand, and as a natural part of the universe on the other.

This reflects a long debate between philosophers about whether time is something external to us — objective, universal, linear; or whether it is only something we construct in our heads, which underlies the differences in subjective “felt time” that vary among people and other natural systems. These are roughly embodied in the two ancient Greek words for time: chronos and kairos. One is quantitative, the other is qualitative; one is about technology and measurability, and the other is about humanity.

Intuitively, you can imagine how both of these are valid: the view of time as regular and measurable underlies the development of clocks, for example. At the same time, the perception of time varies not only across individuals, but even within how each of us experiences a typical day. As English-Lueck points out, we are animals after all, but ones that both affect and adapt to our natural and social environment using ideas and artifacts.

If both of these perspectives on time are valid, then it becomes clear that many of our time conflicts are conflicts between these two paradigms.

Let’s dig a little deeper, with philosopher Federico Campagna:

In the fourth book of his Physics, Aristotle defines time as inextricably related to change: ‘not only do we measure change by time, but time by change, because they are defined by one another’. More precisely, Aristotle sees time as the measure or the number of change. This entails that while change can vary in speed and frequency, time’s measure always proceeds regular and undisturbed. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s definition suggests that if change was to suddenly end, time would also have to stop. There is a rhythm to music, only as long as there is music.

Rhythms and relations

So, lurking beneath both the quantitative and qualitative definitions of time is the simple idea that time is change. We perceive not time but processes and changes, constants versus variables, ongoing states versus punctuated events, repeating cycles versus linear sequences. Measuring rates of change reveals rhythms, and by comparing different rhythms we can reveal the relations between them. We therefore like to focus on rhythms and relations as useful ways of looking at time, which transcend the quantitative-qualitative divide.

Liliane Lijn, an artist we met recently, put it poetically: “There are only rhythms, and the ways we measure them.” Measurement implies a quantitative approach, but Lefebvre points out that external rhythms are usually measured in relation to our own internal ones. He indeed put forth Rhythmanalysis as a new science devoted to taking a temporal view of the social, seeing rhythms anywhere that time, place and energy come together.

Being grounded in the arts, we are less interested in taking a scientific approach. When we combine rhythms with the relations between them, we see a kind of orchestration or choreography. The anthropologist Anna Tsing calls rhythms “forms of temporal coordination,” and this shifts emphasis from singular rhythms to look at synchronised or de-synchronised rhythms between different entities or systems. Helga’s PhD research looked specifically at the desynchronisation of clock time from natural rhythms.

Seeing rhythms in terms of orchestration or choreography fits with physicist Carlo Rovelli’s view of time as a network of events, where time itself is less important than the relations between events. But such a nonlinear, weblike view of time, according to Byung-Chul Han, is what makes time discontinuous. A network or web metaphor immediately evokes the internet, and Han accordingly sees the latter as ahistorical. On the internet, information — a relatively recent concept that emerged with computers — seems to exist outside of time: a statistic or “fact” can reside in a number of places and times, remaining unchanged.

If, as Aristotle proposed, time is equal to change, then the ahistorical nature of information implies either that it resides outside of time, or that time has ceased to exist. What we are losing, Han says, is thresholds, transitions, and narratives that provide context and continuity — again, meaning resides not in individual atoms of information or points in time, but in the relations between them.

If we accept the nonlinear, networked view of time, then we can bring back a sense of continuity by drawing narrative paths through the network. That’s where my own PhD research comes in : I developed ways for people to make meaning by creating trails through nonlinear information environments (discussed here).

Towards temporal sovereignty

To summarize, the numeric time on your mobile phone hides a whole history of assumptions and decisions, today coming from technological centres like Silicon Valley. Taking a postdigital perspective, we see technologies and their underlying assumptions now embedded into almost all cultures on Earth, and a posthuman view looks at human individuals and cultures from the perspective of nonhuman systems, including technologies. When we adopt these perspectives, we can see that clocks introduced increasingly precise measurement to time; and digital technology, by treating time as information, not only enhances temporal precision and acceleration, but adds atomization. When we add in sensors, tracking technologies, and the fragmentation of time caused by social media, the result is that time becomes programmable, and so do people.

We identified three problems arising from these developments. First, a purely quantitative approach to time plus a continuous drive for increased productivity has led to a perceived acceleration of time. The second problem is reliance on clock time and computational rhythms over natural ones. Together, these lead to a whole range of mental and physical health problems individually. The third problem is collective: the quantification and commodification of time can contribute to social inequality and dependence, shaping particular forms of work, knowledge, abilities, attitudes and behaviour.

But as socio-technical systems, these technologies may “want” particular things, but they do not act on their own; the decisions we make, individually and collectively, can make a difference. This comes down to who controls the technologies of time, and how much each of us can have our own temporal sovereignty, as Schmid calls it. The goals of this series of articles are to help give you such sovereignty, to expose some of the social and cultural issues, and to pose alternatives to computational time.

Want more? Read about a couple of our projects here and here, and check out Helga’s book.

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