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Is time money? The persistence of the mechanical clock

We have always had a fascination with time. As a matter of fact, time and time keeping, is one of our earliest inventions. Night was separated from day, day was measured by the sun, the sun (or lack thereof) dictated seasons and seasons informed our work.

However, our fascination with time didn’t stop there. Time became more accurate, more informed. The movement of shadows cast by the sun were measured with sand and water, hours were made; minutes followed with springs, cogs and pendulums; and those tiny vibrations gave birth to seconds.

Encapsulating this marvellous process, there sat the ticking, oscillating, whirring mechanical clock.

All of a sudden, we had too much time to handle. Excess time.

The pace of life began to quicken. Every second of every day of every year was time. It was an unescapable beast, watching every move we made. A lifetime suddenly began to seem a lot smaller.

People began to notice how much time went. The concept of wasting time began to emerge. All of this surplus time was ticking by without any interference.

Well, what can you do with spare time? You can sell it.

Whilst the steam engine is popularly hailed as the single mechanism that brought about the mechanical revolution, Lewis Mumford tells a different story,

“The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age… The clock … is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes”

Not everyone had a steam engine, but they did have a hell of a lot had time. The industrial revolution marks the very first time in history where time was exchanged for currency on such grand scale.

Employee’s on the factory floor sold their time, using their skills in that designated period of time to create wealth for the owner. Suddenly there became a distinction, labour time and free time.

Time began being yours, and not yours.

All to be determined by that beautiful, purring, white and gold clock hung high on the factory wall.

Time-management became the skill of factory owner.  Shift work dictated the regularity of your day, knocker-up your alarm clock, booze and snuff your escape back to natures own predictable irregularity.

If you have ever been disillusioned by exchanging your time for a weekly wage, you’re not alone. As a matter of fact, one gentleman got so worked up by it he spent his spare time dreaming about a utopia where the practice simply vanished.

Now whilst a utopia without capital exchange seems too distant to fathom, Karl Marx was certainly on to something. Even the new ultra-capitalist among us will agree.

Just as our need to compress time drove the technologies to do it, our drive to escape time have produced a frightening future for a love-to-hate working week. New technologies have drastically decreased overall labour time. Further, imminent technologies have the potential to render traditional labour time virtually non-existent.

Whilst the exclusion of manpower may come as a frightening shock to many, it provides a remarkable opportunity to move well beyond life as we know it.

In a world of scarce and polarising wealth, there is a resurgent look into methods of passive wealth generation.

Whether it be revisiting the barter system, time for time exchange, intrinsic investments, sustainable development or simply downsizing to regain good work-life balance; such methods hold time, not money at the centre-point of negotiation.

We have begun to stop selling time, instead, finding ways to spend it better. This ontological shift has created a strange paradox. One that visits our ancient past to determine our imminent future.


Image credit: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

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