Anthropology History

This Thing We Call Time

Have you ever questioned, for instance, why are we so caught up with time? Why do we feel like we’re always running out of it? Why do some days feel like forever, while others end in the blink of an eye? Why do we always hear “time is money” and what does it really mean?

Have you ever questioned, for instance, why are we so caught up with time? Why do we feel like we’re always running out of it? Why do some days feel like forever, while others end in the blink of an eye? Why do we always hear “time is money” and what does it really mean? 

Time Before Clocks

Can you imagine what the world would belike without clocks? How would you be able to tell what time it is? 

We haven’t always been reliant on mechanical clocks as they were created in the late thirteenth century. Before that, people used different forms of telling time such as sundials, candles, and hourglasses. But of course, our modern-day clocks are the most accurate because they are not calculated based on earth’s motion, rather, on the oscillations of atoms in a metal called cesium.

But why are clocks so important?

Perception of Time

Time is certainly not a natural nor a concrete thing. We construct time by creating intervals in social life that interrupts the seamless flow of time and introduces order and rhythm to our lives. This explains why Monday mornings have a different feel than Friday afternoons. It’s not about what day it is, rather, what generally happens on this specific day.

The experience of time is also relative to one’s occupation, gender, age – or culture as a whole. People with no sense of or hope for the future tend to get in so much trouble because they view each day as their last. 

It’s easy for us to assume that the notion of time is perceived in the same way in all cultures. How else would they order and plan their day-to-day activities? However, there are various ways of viewing time:

  1. River – time flows on and on.
  2. Pendulum – time goes back and forth, representing alternation of day and night.
  3. Cyclical – time goes round and round, representing the return of seasons.

Time and Language

Believe it or not, the structure of our language highly affects our notion of time, specifically grammar. Take the Hopi language, for instance. It lacks the past and future tense, therefore, Hopis can’t differentiate between past, present, and future. Everything exists for them in the present. They can’t establish a deadline for things because they can’t envision the future.

Because the English language differentiates between the tenses, its speakers have a linear notion of time. That is, we think that there’s a purpose, goal, or a reason inherited in time. We believe that today is different than tomorrow, and that events aren’t repeatable.

This lineal view of time allows the rise of notions of advancement, progress, and evolution. It also helps us keep historical records. The transformation in time sense also contributed to the emergence of the academic disciplines of geology, archaeology, history, anthropology, economics, and comparative religion.

Industrial Time

Because our culture is dominated by machinery, we live in such a mechanical sense of time. This goes all the way back to the sixteenth century when Max Weber’s protestant ethic fueled the beginnings of capitalism. This ethic discouraged the luxurious lifestyle and encouraged savings.

The protestant ethic and the industrial revolution made people change their perceptions of and in relation to time. Time became a commodity that should be taken advantage of, rather than a medium that is meant to order our lives. Work began to be plotted against the clock and employees were paid per hour. This gave rise to “time is money”. Time is no longer passed, but spent. 

Clocks became our points of reference in which we coordinate our activities. This creates the feeling of fighting against time and having to coordinate our activities with the passage of time. Perhaps, if our points of reference were the activities, which are generally done leisurely, we would’ve had a better relationship with time. Ever since clocks became accessible for everyone, employers have been using them to control their workers since their work is timed according to the clock. In a sense, the time of the worker belongs to the employee. 

Primitive societies are known to work a few hours a day, and spend the rest of the day in leisure and social activities. They have control over the time, pace, and organization of their production and they are in proportion to their ability to satisfy their wants. Whereas, in industrial societies, the workers are put under pressure to finish several tasks at once. The amount of wants is way too high to be satisfied. The tasks have no end – new ones are created everyday. This creates a feeling of scarcity.

For instance, Turkish villagers attempted to work in a town where they had industrial tasks but found it very boring and monotonous. They claimed that they could do different kinds of tasks, and enjoy the process of every task in their village. Work is a common responsibility of the entire of the family, there are always household members available to assist in these tasks that took place at a leisurely pace. They had no rush whatsoever, they relaxed whenever they wanted. Whereas, in our society, our work is hard because we need to fight the pressures of meeting deadlines. The mindset itself is different. We think we waste time, but according to the villagers, one wastes oneself by all this pressure. 

Time is Precious

The reason why we always feel we don’t have enough time is because we’ve been taught that time is very precious and that we should make the best of it. As clocks started ticking, we became more attentive to passage of time, productivity, and performance. We want to progress and maximize profit in such little time, with extra work and effort. People are working more than ever before.

Work performance shouldn’t be based on the hours worked because some tasks require less working hours than the other and vice versa, it should be based on getting the job done. It is normal to work overtime when there’s heavy workload working on a certain launching event or any major event, but if it’s occurrent on a regular basis, there’s something wrong with the workload.

Both time and money are important, but they often come with high costs. Time is money, but money isn’t happiness. We miss out on more valuable things in life, especially having time for own families and friends. Work shouldn’t be as overwhelming as it is, we should enjoy what we do. At least, it’s not supposed to be something that disrupts us from our life out of the workplace. 

Time is indeed precious; it continues regardless whether we waste it, invest in it, live it, or abuse it. Time is non-renewable – once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. That’s why we should make time for what we value and prioritize, and for what matters to us the most. There’s no harm in making time for work and time for leisure. Productivity is essential, but I think it’s time we reconsider our expectations.

7 replies on “This Thing We Call Time”

Brilliant post! Time is something we just can’t take for granted – once it’s spent, it’s spent. We have such odd priorities when it comes to living. Living by the clock is the perfect example.

Liked by 2 people

And in the end, no matter how you spend your time, time will run out: for you, the planet, and the Universe.
James Burke’s Connection series had a great episode on time — or rather clocks — and the rise of our infatuation of managing time.
Prior to all this time nonsense (impossible to avoid now due to population induced resource contention) I’d posit that what we managed instead was change.
Light, seasons, migrations, bodily growth, pregnancy, age, death. All of these represent change that can be acknowledged — without the need for hourly measurement. Such a time as our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed, clockless, I would enjoy returning to.
Good post. Thanks.

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