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You don't need a watch to tell you that your time's not your own In the age of hyperwork we should remember time as a friend

"HOW goes the Enemy?" our teacher used to ask. The clock was on the wall behind his desk. He was too badly-paid to have a wristwatch, too young for a brass one on a chain. Only the rumbling in his belly told him the lesson was nearly done, that biscuits were being set out and tea brewed in the staff room.

We would all shout back at him with the time. It was no Enemy to us, but a friend. The minute-hand would finally reach the hour; the bells would explode in one classroom after another; the uproar of slamming desks and thundering shoes would announce liberation.

Last week, a colleague came in ratty because she had mistaken the time. She never wears a wristwatch because she relies on public clocks. This is because she has an upright, socialist disposition which assumes that public provision will eventually replace bourgeois individualism. But all the public clocks in her bit of London have now broken down: some vandalised, some pulled down for traffic-calming measures, some simply neglected. So ... you might assume that my colleague is late for everything. But instead she is discovering that punctuality is somehow no longer the point. And she has not bought a wristwatch.

Time on clocks does not matter as it used to. Once time was both a god and a tyrant - in many ways, an Enemy indeed. Now a new period is opening, a clockless landscape whose dimensions are no longer marked in minutes or hours pegged out along every path and notched on every tree. I have a feeling that this may not be a change for the better.

The Modern Age built itself on the idea of clocked time. In Benedict Anderson's famous book Imagined Communities, he described how modern nationalism developed as people were trained to imagine a shared cultural identity with other, distant people whom they would never actually see. One instrument in this training was the circulation of printed literature in the vernacular language. Another, much later, was clocked time. If it was six o'clock in Kent, then it had to be six o'clock in Somerset and in Westmoreland.

This totally conflicted with the evidence of the senses. After all, everyone could watch the westward movement of dawn and dusk across the landscape. But national standard time was accepted: another imaginary shared experience. Soon, a French minister of education would exult in the knowledge that at precisely ten minutes past eleven on a Tuesday morning, every 12-year- old pupil in every lycee would be turning the same page in the same history book.

The Industrial Revolution, the life of factory and office, was ruled by measured time. One clocked on and clocked off. Hours were checked by overseers often equipped with portable timepieces in their waistcoat pocket. Lateness became a punishable, even a moral offence. With this cult of "drilled simultaneity" went a secondary cult of "acceleration". A unit of time came to be understood as a physical space, into which as much output as possible had to be packed. Speed of production per time- unit became crucial. A hundred widgets turned and finished in an hour was better than fifty; thirty letters typed in an hour was better than fifteen.

On the "Fordist" production line, time became the key determinant of cost. Soon the "time and motion" teams began to raid the workplace, roaming up and down between the rows of lathes or the production-belt, stabbing at the knob of their stop-watches. Economic statistics became anchored to time-units. Speed and regularity became the unquestioned marks of modernity. Mussolini made Italy's trains run on time; the Moscow Metro installed platform clocks proudly displaying the train intervals (they are still there); the car was judged by its mph and the secretary by her wpm.

But the clock was a weapon which could be turned against its owners. Once complex industrial processes had developed their routines, organised labour fought back by adopting and then subverting the time fetish. Trade union demands for "shorter hours" were often as important as - and more disruptive than - the demands for higher wages. The Marxist theory of labour value was to a great extent about time: the "socially necessary" time required to produce a commodity.

Now this era begins to seem archaic. The public clocks are broken. Offices these days often have no timepiece on the wall. Neither of the two journalists who share my desk possesses a watch yet they work in what is one of the most time-sensitive of all industries.

This slow but enormous change is well-described in a recent issue of Demos. Devoted to "the time-squeeze", it contains a series of intelligent attempts to assess the coming death of the clock. In its impact on society, this event may turn out to be as influential as the "death of God". And like the decline of organised religion, it brings both new liberty and new servitude.

There is the optimistic view: that "in place of the ordered shared rhythms of the industrial age, time ... becomes customised and personalised" (Demos). The home computer, the freezer, the video all empower the individual to decide his or her working hours. The important thing is to get the job done, but the only important time dimension may be the deadline for delivery - not any internal timetable for carrying it out.

That sounds good, but already faintly dated. It smells unmistakeably of the 1980s and the decade's feel-good illusions. "Liberation!" they said, and led us into a bigger cell with a view. The death of the clock is being followed by a strange new atmosphere in which we seem to be exploiting ourselves rather than relying on the clock-owning class to do the exploitation. As one informant told Demos, "We'll all be able to work ourselves to death - because ubiquitous computers mean our work will always be with us."

Since the late 1980s, I have been aware of living in a hyperwork culture. All around me, at work and in my acquaintance, are younger men and women who are working up to 10 hours a day and often more, while also accepting steadily growing burdens of freelance work. Nobody commands them directly to turn up at a specific hour or to work so long. Some have contracts with minimum or maximum hours, but neither employer nor employee seems to remember them. The concept of "overtime" is a half-remembered term from history, like villenage.

Many of these hyperworkers, as often women as men, have young children. It is hard to see where space for family life exists. I am, admittedly, writing mostly about media people or highly educated employees in knowledge- based firms. Yet the statistics show that general British working hours are lengthening (after diminishing for 150 years), that they are longer than in other European countries, and that 60 per cent of employed British men and 45 per cent of women now "usually or sometimes" work on Saturdays.

Hyperwork is about being driven. But by what? It is not simply the need for money. Hyperwork is, by traditional hourly standards, underpaid. This is about job security, about a tragic compulsion to seem keen and competitive - when all experience should teach that those who work hardest for least are the first to be thrown on the skip in hard times.

We have slain the clock - and the first result is that our time is no longer our own. Perhaps in the end the empowerment granted by new technology will outweigh the forces out to terrorise and casualise workers who have given up their watches. But until then the dead Enemy, with white face and stilled hands, will seem more like a lost friend.